The Thickness of Blood in Family Business – PART 2
“Doing Business at the Wedding.”
In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business. The terms included are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.
In family business we often stand at crossroads. In these moments we seek guidance which, broadly speaking, comes from realms of the spiritual and of the empirical. Here, we focus on the spiritual.
The spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I ask the readers to approach the material openly.
The crux of this essay is examining the old saying, “blood is thicker than water.” To do so we look at three scriptural texts. In each text, one of a trio of fluids is turned into another of the trio. The water of the Nile turns into blood, the water at the wedding at Cana turns into wine, and the wine at The Last Supper turns into blood.
This essay’s goal is to open us up in the daily practice of our family business to the possibility of a similar turn in how we see non-family; that beyond our blood relations there are worthy people who we do well to bring into our family business.
Managing those relationships respectfully yields great dividends.
This is part two of a three part series. It starts with some recap of part one. To skip to new material click here
WATER TO WINE
In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business. The terms are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.
- Blood is associated with the physical, genetic bonds among family. This has specificity and tribalism to it.
- Water, as is the gist of the saying “blood is thicker than water,” identifies those outside the family, not in the tribe. Water describes the universe of all people from among which blood lines divide us out into tribes and families.
- Wine is a physical agent that brings success, blessing, goodness. Wine is part of rituals including festive meals and weddings. Wine sipping is a physical act by which partakers show to themselves and others their acceptance of family rules and tribal norms. Of particular note around the use of wine is that at Jewish weddings, the sipping of wine activates the union of the couple. In this union, persons related at the water level become blood relatives both physically and spiritually.
- Miracles as used in this essay are natural events that “take our breath away,” so to speak. They are events that cause us to step out of the box, to see new possibilities in old circumstances.
- Blessing is both a ritualized act to bolster the good in a person or situation as well as the realization of that good over which we do not have direct control. For example, a parent might lay their hands on their child’s head and bless them that they will be as great as the matriarchs and patriarchs of the community. That child in fact becoming so great would be a blessing actualized in that person. Blessing is not magic but rather it is a process. In this case of parental blessing, the relatively brief moment of ritual blessing should be seen as the culmination of every prior interaction between that parent and child. If daily, the parent berated the child, no momentary ritual would undo all that. Instead, the ritual of blessing is confirmation of all that has been. Or, optimistically, the ritual of blessing might signal a new course in the child-parent relationship.
This spiritual terminology is part of a view as to where we get guidance in deciding what is the right thing to do. In family business we often stand at crossroads. We ask, “Who will be our new CEO?” Or, “How shall we grow our business?” Consciously or not, in these moments we seek guidance. Broadly speaking, this guidance comes from realms, the realms of the spiritual and of the empirical. I stand with a foot in both worlds and hope not to be split in two. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say, “What science and religion should both be teaching us right now is humility and awe, knowing how small we are in the scheme of things, and how dangerous it is to destroy what it took almost infinite time and space to create..”(← NOTE)
It is with humility and awe that I bring to family business spiritual lessons that have enduring value. As I do this, I know the spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I hope the readers are able to approach the material openly; and I hope so because of the value often expressed by those with whom I work. I have colleagues within my own consulting group who build their work in the empirical realm. We respect each other deeply. The realms, we find, have common ground. We share goals for our clients and we guide clients to their goals using the tools we handle best.
The particular point of this essay is looking at the choice of family vs. non-family persons for roles in the family business.
Family businesses do put family members in key positions for a few very good reasons. First among them is trust. Second is cost. The trust is very much in that we know each other forever and we know where each other lives. There is history and accountability. Cost is, given that we share so much, we are often willing to share some special risk. That risk includes taking less financial reward in exchange for greater job security. And, in a well run family business, that calculation can often reap rewards both in wealth and in security.
But, not always. There are situations where the family business needs a skill not present among the family members. As can happen in these situations, forced fits are tried. Unpleasantness ensues.
At this point, let’s take a biblical journey to provide context for looking at the thickness of blood and water. We here add another fluid so often found in these very same histories, that being wine. Each of these fluids has a role of its own. But our focus here will be on where ancient texts link these fluids; where one of these three fluids is turned into another of the trio.
New Testament. John 2: 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” And they took it to him. 9 Now when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the head waiter called the groom, 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the guests are drunk, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Let’s give attributions to the fluids in this story and apply them to family business. In a Jewish wedding, which this wedding at Cana was, wine is sipped by the bride and groom as the functional ritual uniting the couple. At the meals following the wedding, and traditionally there are twenty-one meals over seven days, wine remains central to bringing blessing. Wine blessings are made at each meal and the blessing of the wine explicitly links wine to joy and to the line of authority running generation to generation from Adam and Eve to the present day. Running out of wine at a wedding is a very big problem.
At each wedding a new family is created. To this there are biological and spiritual elements. Husband and wife are spiritually bonded by sipping wine under the wedding canopy. They become blood relatives in their offspring. In this same way, two families that were water to each other become blood relatives. Wine affects this union. In this Cana history, the lack of wine is relieved by water becoming wine. This is no small thing. It is a miracle.
We now go back again to the old saw at this essay’s opening, blood (family) is thicker than water (non-family). There are times (at a wedding) that you need wine (blessing and joy) because you need to affect a miracle. Water needs to turn into blood. Non-family needs to become family.
I have been to many weddings. They are very complicated situations. It’s only a bit of a joke to describe weddings like this: “Two people who barely know each other surrounded by their family and friends, many of whom are questioning the likely success of the union they have come to witness; add wine.” And, so begins married life. A successful marriage truly is a miracle. Bless my wife for her outsized role in our ongoing miracle of now 35 years.
In this history from Cana that miracle is put at risk due to running out of the operative ritual ingredient; no more wine. This New Testament miracle story comes to say that ubiquitous water can become wine; that sometimes the extraordinary is called for to meet an urgent need. And, if it’s from water you get your wine, get it, drink it, enjoy it and celebrate your miracle with it.
In terms of family business, weddings can bring a muddying of waters. Often, marriage does not transform the one married-in to a family member.
In terms of family business, weddings often bring a muddying of waters. That phrase we started our essay with, blood is thicker than water, is plopped on the table to say that, in that speaker’s eyes, at that moment, marriage does not make the married-in a family member. At best they are an odd duck, not quite family and not quite not-family. Ignoring such a statement is done at everyone’s peril. There’s an instability in the family business structure being called out. Shoving it under the rug won’t stabilize anything. Actually, shoving under the rug never does anything except, if we’re lucky, buy us time to work out what needs to get worked out.
The miracle story at Cana is rich with guidance but it’s not for the couple. Note that we do not even know who the couple is. We do know they have some rather high power attendees, among them Jesus, Mary, the disciples and their entourage. This is a five star wedding. And, they’re running out of wine. And, the story is being told to us; we are the audience that matters.
Taking a step deeper, we see that, at this Cana wedding, it is Jesus’ mother who cues him to the wine having run out. Without saying the words, she asks him to do a miracle, to make wine from water. His response to her; “Mom, I don’t do that sort of thing, yet.” She, from her own wisdom, prepares the way for her son by telling the servants, “Do whatever he says.” It seems that she knows what’s coming. As quoted above, the water becomes wine. The wedding goes on. Importantly, the wedding goes on, not in a stinting way but with generosity of quantity and quality. There is now plenty of wine and the head waiter says of this bountiful supply of wine, “it’s not the cheap stuff people usually serve to the already drunk guests. It’s good wine.”
Remember that Scripture is spare writing. Ink and paper were precious. When a story includes a detail, it is there for an important reason.
Readers, remember that Scripture is spare writing. Ink and paper were precious. When a story includes a detail, it is there for an important reason. Oftentimes, however, the text is not clear what that reason is. This is where interpretation figures in understanding a text. For interpretation, we have traditional commentaries and we have modern commentaries. We have scholars and laypersons. The latter sort of commentary, I bring here.
At this Cana wedding, the central figure, Jesus, the CEO if you will, was not ready to go outside how he viewed his career path. It is not even clear that he knew there was an emerging problem. Another family member, Mary, spoke up. She saw the looming problem and respectfully prepared the way to solve it. To his credit, Jesus follows the path his mother laid. He steps out of his career path and brings forward what will become his methodology, making miracles, here turning water into wine.
In terms of family business there is a lot going on in the Wedding-at-Cana miracle history.
This story speaks to leadership. The role of Jesus, whom I characterize here as CEO, is to be respected. A lot is on the leader’s shoulder and suggestions by others, even other high level leaders are best given respectfully. This is not suggesting withholding ideas as if walking on eggshells nor flooding the leader with every idea that comes to mind.
Most well run family business have in place methods for conveying ideas and for evaluation and implementation. In this Cana story, Mary’s suggestion comes outside of such methods, if they even yet exist. I say “yet,” because the Church developed its management procedures over centuries, so family businesses develop their procedures over time. A key message this interpreter reads in the Cana history is that management suggestions are best delivered and received respectfully. The intelligence and good sense of both giver and receiver are taken as axioms.
This Cana story also speaks to vision and values. An important wedding is taking place, really, every wedding is important. Mary’s concern shows her vision and values vis a vis marriage. Give this miracle of union a generous welcome into being. Don’t stint. And, Jesus’ response shows alignment with those values, and more. He has not thought to do a miracle and yet he goes along and does a miracle. In effect, this is like the CEO of the family business going ahead and pulling resources into the present. This reads like someone who had heard, considered and therefore changed course. This is no small thing in a leader, and when done well as here, it benefits the morale of other leadership insofar as they have been heard respectfully. It is worth mentioning that hearing respectfully does not mean always doing as you’ve heard. Hearing respectfully is about taking suggestions seriously; without petulance or whims.
New projects, even in family businesses with many years behind them, each require generosity in resources at their beginning.
As for the vision of giving a generous start, here it is to a wedding couple. In family business we will from time to time start something new. These new starts, even in family businesses with many years behind them, each require generosity at their beginning; generosity in time and treasure, in thinking through the ideas and in checking the assumptions and in staffing and in supplying. We don’t want to run out of wine during start-up.
And, the elephant in the room, that this Cana history addresses: weddings are the beginning of something miraculous. Weddings deserve our generosity. Marriages, likewise, also deserve our generosity. It is our job to support them with generosity of thought, which is at a minimum, to refrain from striking division between the couple. If we were to say about a married-in member of our family business that they are water and not blood, we are being divisive. We may be, somehow right, but it’s not right enough. If we are feeling such a feeling about a married-in, we need to raise the issue in a productive way. And, that means each of us owns our piece of that reality. Have we let the person in? Have we understood why they may be holding back? Have we trained them how the family works? Have we allowed ourselves to learn from them?
In sum, this miracle history of the wedding at Cana does happen to be about a wedding. It is also about the generosity we offer both to married couples in our family business and, by extension, to any new start-up element of our business.
Furthermore, we note that this Cana history is also about how a powerful Canaanite family conducted its management. In a word, this family does speak within itself and it does so respectfully. They hear. They consider. They do. And, in this process, miracles happen. Water turns to wine. The most generic turns to blessing. That is exactly what respectful management does. It turns humble material into the most valuable material. Good management takes the simplest of stuff and makes of it good products, wealth, legacy and joy. It’s what we are about when we are at our best.
And, for that, a nod of thanks to Sunday school teachers for maintaining our access to this valuable history.
Jonathan advises family businesses in both the US and Israel. He consults with families in business on goal setting, role development, governance, communication, transition, leadership and culture building. ( view bio )