Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

February Current Thinking Column

Monday, February 29, 2016

Defining a Purpose Changes Lives 

by Joe Paul

Today I want to touch upon the effects that a purpose has on individuals, families, and organization, and in particular, how a clear sense of one’s purpose develops the capacity for leadership. My ideas about this topic have been shaped by my work counseling and mentoring family business leaders, their successors, and their advisors.

Imagine a scenario in which Fred, his father’s successor in their family’s business, had gone through a process with a consultant to define a statement of purpose for his life. The only requirements were that the statement must be limited to one sentence and it must be applicable to every role in his life (e.g. a husband, a business owner, a father, a citizen, etc.). He was told that going through the process of defining a purpose for your life often stimulates qualities such as courage, commitment, and stamina. It can also complicate your existing relationships. Fred found that it also enhanced the ability to focus his energy and develop a greater self-confidence. A commitment to the statement seemed to also illuminate what his efforts were actually in service to on a deeper level. 

His Statement of Purpose for his life was,

“To encourage trust, transparency and peace in all my relationships.” 

In a few months his purpose was tested. Fred had been a long-term supporter of a politician with whom he believed his values were most compatible. But upon hearing reports of his clandestine activities, Fred began to realize that the money and time he devoted to the politician had been in service to something that is antithetical to his values and his new sense of purpose. The seriousness of the disparity between what the politician would say and what he actually did was so egregious that Fred started petition to sanction the man for violating the party’s code of conduct. This action was difficult for him because this politician was a friend of his parents. It was a real test to see if he could “walk the walk.”

I am relating this story to you because it is an example of how self-definition precipitates substantial changes, including a greater capacity of leadership. But another question I have often wondered about is how these ideas about one’s sense of purpose actually bring about changes in the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. 

I have found that the theory of Memetics has a great deal to say about the life-cycle and influence of ideas. Memes are ideas that spread by competing for the mind space of individuals and groups. For instance, introducing you to the concept of memes is already creating competition with your existing ideas about how knowledge flows between people.

Memes have been described as having a virus-like pattern of survival. For example, when a person has a religious conversion they are “infected” by contact with a Christian memeplex (a memeplex is a powerful cluster of memes in symbiotic relationships). An infected individual becomes a vector for the spread of that denomination of Christianity.

I encourage you to look into the literature about memes. A good place to begin is a cursory introduction is hereIf you would like to discuss memes and how they can be used in your work with family businesses and/or their advisors I encourage you to contact me here

I’ve also included a previous essay, "Guidelines for Consulting to Family Business Leaders, Successors, and Their Advisors" for further exploration of the topic below. The Aspen Family Business Group recently published a book called Balancing the Emotional Ledger: Axioms and Guidelines for Counseling Families in Business which can be purchased here

Guidelines for Consulting to Family Business Leaders, Successors, and Their Advisors 

by Joe Paul

Regardless of the consultant’s “discipline of origin,” there is a meaningful distinction between family business consultants and consultants to families in business. The former works with unique kinds of businesses, the latter works with unique kinds of families. Significant differences in assessment and intervention flow from this difference. 

Assessments and interventions need to be grounded in an understanding of individual psychology, family systems theory, and organizational development.

The level of trust in the family and in the business defines what is possible. Interventions need to be based on an assessment of the level of trust in these systems and the basis of the mistrust, when it exists. 

Of the factors that make a family business work, we have found that trust is more important than love. 

Commitments to rational agreements and contracts among family members typically will not control the family dynamics that drive behaviors; especially when mistrust or a sense of unfairness is prevalent among family members. Generally speaking, problematic family issues need to be dealt with directly by the consultant if he or she feels competent to do so, and not indirectly via documents that have not addressed underlying family issues. 

A family owned business is often weakened when a family leader uses the business to try to manage the problematic psychological issues of an individual family member, or the problematic relational issues in the family itself. The more serious the issue and the longer it goes on, the more likely it is to damage the business. If, for instance, a leader maintains an incompetent family member in an executive position only to keep harmony in the family, the business is bound to suffer. The longer it lasts, the more damage it does. 

The interventions of consultants need to be based on an assessment process that integrates the interactions of family dynamics, management requirements, and ownership concerns.

The consultant should not “take sides” until he or she is sure they know why they are doing so. The initial responsibility of the consultant is to create a context that is safe enough for the family to have the conversations they have been avoiding. To do this the consultant must be seen as trustworthy in the eyes of as many members of the client-family as possible. This means that it is important to avoid being unwittingly co-opted by the politics of the family early in the engagement and before a strategic plan for the engagement has been developed. 

Much of the change that happens as a result of successful consultation shows up first in the way people communicate. Sometimes this means talking about things they have avoided, and sometimes this means that they simply learn to be more civil.

Resistance to change is a natural part of a system’s way of surviving. Whenever possible, this resistance should be honored and “reframed” by the consultant as an individual’s attempt to preserve something important. It is the consultant’s responsibility to monitor the balance between the forces for change and the homeostatic forces that preserve what is familiar to the family. Interventions should be managed accordingly.

Most successful interventions lead to:

A) Increased differentiation of some family members as effective fiduciaries, or “accountables”, e.g. Managers, Directors and/or Trustees. We describe this process as “finding your voice” in a new role or business responsibility. 

B) The differentiation of organizational sub-systems within the family and business that will carry significant responsibilities, e.g. creating a Family Council, a Board of Directors, a Management Team, a Shareholders Group, etc. 

C) The ability of individuals and sub-systems to “morph” from one role to another in an orderly way.


One of the most important intangible assets of a family in business is the ability to think clearly together. The most common factor that interferes with the ability of the family to function intelligently is family politics. The assessment process needs to identify those factors that keep the family from thinking clearly.

Avoid rushing to solutions early in the consulting process. To do so is often an indication that the consultant has been co-opted by factions within the client system, or by personal (sometimes unconscious) issues of the consultant. 

The consultant needs to develop a standardized assessment process that integrates objective assessments and clinical interviews. The consultant should also attempt to include all individuals in the family who have, or will have, either a direct or indirect influence on the family’s decision-making process. This means that it is important to include spouses who do not work in the company, or own stock.


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