Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

March Current Thinking Column

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ceremony, Commitment and Intent

by Joe Paul

As family business issues become more complex, the notion of ceremony grows even more important. Eight years ago, the Smith family found themselves in chaos over ownership and management troubles. As of today, they serve as a role model for family governance. 

At the 7th annual gathering of the Smith Family Assembly, the six members of the Smith Family Council coalesce around a circle of six chairs in the center of a hotel meeting room. The six council members span two generations: three from generation-3 and three from generation-4. The remaining 18 members of the assembly quietly take their seats and prepare to observe the annual meeting of their family council. 

One at a time, in no particular order, each family member crosses the boundary of the circle of chairs. As they cross the boundary, each person repeats, “As I enter the circle of our family council, I promise to be a steward of our legacy and to always act in the best interests of our family.” 

Harold Smith, age 68 and a member of generation-3, is the Chairperson of the Council. He calls the meeting to order and proclaims, “As is our custom, we begin each annual family council meeting by hearing our mission statement and the code of conduct for council members read aloud. Cousin Ellen, would you do us the honor?” 


The power of a ceremony is derived from intent, organization and symbolic meaning along with patience and creativity. At first glance, many of us are predisposed to devalue ceremonies as frivolous rituals from exotic places or practiced by impressionable, irrational people in our culture. However, ceremonies are not necessarily religious -- they can be very practical in helping people connect with what is most important within their family system. Ceremony is used to communicate a message in a lasting manner by differentiating an object, a place, an event or person in a memorable way. We remember it because in a ceremony, the object, place, action, event or person becomes symbolic of an idea. Family legacies are collections of memories that usually stand out because of remarkable events that were either intentional (ceremonial) or accidental. 

For example, an annual tax exempt gift check that comes from your grandmother’s accountant leaves much less of an impression than that same check handed to you personally by your grandmother. Or, interrupting the normal work day by publicly displaying your appreciation for a dedicated employee with a vase of flowers rather than simply mumbling “attagirl” as you pass her desk garners more positive attention and motivation. 

And in the Smith family described above, everyone, both council members and observers alike, are more likely to feel they are a part of something serious and important because of Harold’s ceremonial way of leading. It would be much less memorable if Harold had said, “Well folks, we have a hell of a list to get through today so I suggest we get started.” 

If you are interested in being more purposeful in the events connected with your family and business, you will enjoy a recently published book called The Power of Ceremony by Linda Neale.


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