Challenges To Creating Change Initiatives In Family Businesses–The Middle Passage

One of the challenges encountered by younger-generation family members as they try to initiate change in their family businesses while the older generation is still in charge is driven by the psychology of the lifecycle transition experienced by the older generation at the time this push for change is taking shape. Jungian analyst Dr. James Hollis describes this transition in his book, The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Mid-Life.[1]

The ideas presented in Dr. Hollis’ book help us understand the emotions in play in the midst of this common crisis in family businesses. Inevitably, as the son—or daughter—pushes for dominance, the father—or mother—is concurrently undergoing a significant change—a ‘middle passage’—from the first to the second half of life.

A person traversing the middle passage begins to view his or her life as something more than a linear succession of years. One re-examines their life and asks the sometimes frightening—but always liberating—question, “who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?” Many may find this somewhat shaky and perhaps even hazardous ground to navigate.

Dr. Hollis describes how in the first half of our lives—which in itself is a lifecycle stage—we come to know who we are through our social roles, work and psych reflexes.* Our task then is to attain sufficient ego strength to live independently and enter the world. Importantly, this strength is required in the second half for the larger journey of seeking connection and deeper meaning. What we need to know for this second half of life comes from what we learned from the first half, and the resources we have built within ourselves; not dependent on others or something new from the outside world.

According to Dr. Hollis, it is during the middle passage one asks anew those deep questions about meaning that all children ask—then vivid and compelling—but faded over the years. The middle passage begins when one is required to face certain categories of issues that heretofore had been glossed over. The question of identity returns and one can no longer evade the responsibility to answer it—again—and in a new way.

As the older generation struggles to traverse the daunting middle passage, their sons/daughters are entering the passage that Hollis calls the ‘adult first half.’ The clash of differing lifecycle perspectives can precipitate significant tension between the generations. The more conscious of these passages and the more they are understood by those traversing them; the more peaceful will be both their personal transitions and their intergenerational relationships. And following from this, the more likely the family business will be to remain vigorous and productive as leadership passes to the new generation.


[1] Hollis, James. The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Mid-Life. Inner City Books. Toronto. 1993

* Automatic reactions related to attention, decision making, learning, judgment, memory, motivation, perception, reasoning, thinking, cognitive processes, etc.