Values and vision in a time of war
The Aspen Family Business Group often talks about the crucial role of values and vision in building and growing a multigenerational family business. They are essential tools especially in challenging times. Today’s news calls for a fresh look at values and vision. And, today’s look is both personal and geopolitical, of the present and looking back a hundred years.
As for the personal, many of us have roots in the war torn region and the reasons our ancestors left there are still operative in today’s conflict.
First, we focus on the familiar values of life and truth .. then we add the concept of agency as a third value, which can be understood as each person making their own choices based on their own vision. Agency resounds because Volodymyr Zelensky used the word so often in a powerful interview he recently gave with The Economist magazine, “Agency, people have it. People are leaders, not politicians.”
Zelensky attributes his country’s surprising strength to agency. It motivates his People that they are acting from within themselves, by their own values and vision. His leadership, he says, is not about imposing. He demonstrates that theirs is a vision shared among their fellow citizens. This conversation between leader and citizens, shows all of us the power of values, of vision and, particularly, of shared vision. As in nations, so in our family business, governance principles enable our agencies to coexist and operate together.
The war in Ukraine gives blunt, daily examples of values’ and visions’ central roles, including in family business. My wife manages business franchise relationships for her global company. These last weeks on the company messaging channels, she’s seen bombed out locations and others hobbled by sanctions. She reads about franchisees welcoming colleagues across borders, opening their homes, giving jobs to refugees, placing their kids in schools. In the midst of it all, they are keeping the businesses going, keeping people employed, and continuing to provide their services. They are living their values.
We ask aloud, “what can we do?” The individuals in my wife’s company show us. No one ordered them to open their homes and businesses to their colleagues. They understood what they could do, what their heart called on them to do and they are doing it.
To paraphrase my Grandmother, “God forbid we should have such chances to do good deeds.” But, lesser good deeds, that we can do.
With respect, we take this opportunity to see what moves these new heroes. As their model strengthens them, it can also strengthen us. It can strengthen our families and our businesses.
- The sanctity of human life.
- The foundational role of truth.
- The right of each person to agency, to make their own choices.
Vision is what guides the expression of values. And, governance principles enable our agencies to coexist and operate together.
Value One (1): The Sanctity of Human Life.
There is a raw calculus built into the human condition. In order to maintain our life, we keep ourselves supplied with air, water, and food. These things are not evenly distributed among us. We act in the context of other people with our same needs, and we prioritize our supply over theirs. However, valuing the sanctity of human life places limits on what we do to ensure our life supplies.
A business thrives when it exists in a context that also allows its customers to thrive.
Likewise in a business context, some use coercion to destroy competitors. Until late February, we might have forgotten about coercion and its violent tactics as a political or business tool. But, history did not die after all. Using regulation to carve space for multiple entities in the same field is a very different choice than coercion. Both employ force. Both challenge individuals’ agency. Each creates a specific kind of world.
There is no equivalence between coercion and regulation. Coercion is authoritarian. It does not seek consensus. Violence, physical or emotional, drives compliance. Regulation derives its power from consensus. It is a process that includes means to amend itself in the face of changing circumstances.
My professional stance supports regulated environments. I believe history has shown them to bring greater value even as we acknowledge that in today’s war we are facing off against leaders who believe just as strongly that coercion is the right path forward. Time will tell.
As this plays out on the world stage, it is important to bring this war down to the local level, down to the plane of family and business. Like states, families and businesses also make a management choice to be either coercive or regulatory. Often, we get called in professionally when coercion has failed. Our metier is helping replace coercion with regulation, which we call governance. With our clients, we formulate the values, vision and governance principles by which families and businesses can grow.
How we got to be these people is a long story. The particular values and vision we hold come in part by conscious choice and in part by the unstudied effects of our personal history.
As you have heard before, The Aspen Family Business Group is small. As of this writing, we are just six individuals. Of this group, three of us descend from the part of the world now at war. Our grandparents left there in the early twentieth century. We each have our story, but they are basically all the same. In each story, people felt that staying alive meant choosing to move on.
My grandfather was in line to be drafted into Czar Nicholas II’s army. Draft was a death sentence; no one had ever come back alive. At first they never drafted an only son. So, my grandfather changed his last name. Later, the rule was toothless people were not drafted, so he pulled out all his teeth.
When life saving clauses ran out, he, my grandmother and my uncle sailed away from Odessa. It was always about life.
For this I am grateful, as are my colleagues for their stories. Each family went on to create an unbroken line of generations and businesses. The three values we highlight here energized every step along the way. Again, for us, the basic and greatest value is the sanctity of human life. Life is our Value One (1).
Value Two (2): The Foundational Role of Truth
That unbroken line of family and business was strengthened by education. My grandfather was born and educated in Uman, Ukraine and became a licensed architect with a practice in Odessa. Grandmother was educated and became an underground organizer enabling people to get out of a worsening geopolitical situation. She set up language classes and leased boats. My grandparents’ skill sets kept our family alive and thriving.
They also saw to their childrens’ education who then saw to our generation’s education. The core of our education was inquiry. We were trained to ask questions, not for the sake of questioning but for the sake of understanding what was going on, what that meant for us and how to place ourselves around it.
By way of illustration, here is one of my dad’s many jokes, “At an annual conference of the American Psychological Association, two psychologists were walking together. A colleague passed by them and they said, ‘good morning.’ Their colleague said to herself, ‘I wonder what they meant by that?’” Such was our growing up.
Inquiry was our mode. We were taught to seek data and to check that the data matched reality on the ground. Both parents taught us this. I remember my Mom, a South Carolina teacher of the year winner, telling us how Piaget was a visionary in educational theory even though much of his work was potentially biased, being based on only three subjects and they were his children. Dad loved to tell about blindfolded people describing an elephant and how where they were standing around it determined what they understood the elephant to be. The world is full of data, and people are full of limitations; so beyond gathering data, is learning how to sieve out of it the truth.
In our family history, being able to arrive at an actionable truth was the difference between life and death. Sometimes, and certainly these days, it haunts me that other families in our ancestral part of Eastern Europe did not read the data points of their day as did my grandparents. I feel lucky, even blessed in who I came from. They pressed into us Value Two (2), the life sustaining value of truth.
Value Three (3): The Right Of Each Person To Agency, To Make Their Own Choices
What if my grandparents were wrong? What if those neighbors they left behind were right? A decade after my family left, other Eastern Europeans did decide their time had finally come to leave. Some went further east into Russia which made no historical sense and they lived. Some went to Western Europe. That made some sense historically, but they did not survive They were consumed in The Holocaust of the second world war.
Where I am taking us is agency, that people act from within themselves.
Each person’s decision process is as individual as their fingerprint. Maybe they don’t eat fish because Aunt Lottie told them how her father died from swallowing a fish bone. My Aunt Lottie pulled that one on me and I loved her anyway. Be they small or large, our decisions are the sum total of each moment up to this very time.
I am grateful that my grandparents exercised their agency. Further, I value each person’s right of agency. This value is part of my legacy and I pass it along both in family and in business.
To be clear, a person’s expression of their agency may upset me. I may try to convince them to use other expressions. And, while I do not condone violence, I pay taxes to states that do use violence, pray only after a failure of all other means. Life is not simple.
Again, today’s backdrop of war and my family history are large scale, but agency is just as central a value in how we conduct our smaller scale day-to-day family and business affairs.
Agency is us expressing our vision. Our vision comes from our values. Our values are the scale by which we measure and organize the world.
Vision is what guides the expression of agency
This brings us to the beauty and the muddiness of Value Three (3), the right of each person to agency. I value what happens when people live by their own data analysis. Sublevel to that, I value education so that people have a good chance of knowing how to manage data. I recognize that people make mistakes. I believe that the value of agency, even with the mistakes inherent in its use, adds up to more than where agency is suppressed.
In sum, I believe in my values and vision. I got to them on my grandparents’ shoulders. I also believe that these values and vision make for good business:
- Life is sacred
- Truth is crucial
- People are free to make choices, they have agency
These all add up to a valuable world, a world my grandparents’ choices opened up for me and a world I hope to share with both my grandchildren and with yours.
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 )