Often I hear a son in a family business speaking harshly about how his father rejects the initiatives he proposes for changes in the business. Frustrated by rejection, the son may interpret his father’s attitude to mean that he cannot accept opposition to his authority.
Alternatively, the father’s view of the situation may be that his son means to push him aside, eager to take over control. The father, threatened, fears a feeling of diminishment and loss of identity.
The above—although simply put—is a recognized dynamic in family businesses. The details vary as the families and their businesses vary; no two being the same. But behind the simplicity lurks a world of emotional complexity on each side.
What does the business mean to the father? What sacrifices did he make to build it? What were his beginnings? What obstacles did he overcome to establish a viable enterprise? In what way does his business reflect his values, and stand as a source of pride in his life’s hard work? What will happen to him should he one day have nothing to do?
What motivates the son? Ambitious, energetic; educated; enthusiastic; he wants to prove himself and his new ideas. Underneath this though, a range of emotions dwells. For example, he may feel that his abilities will not measure up to his father’s; that he cannot fill his father’s shoes. He may not be able to comfortably articulate his thoughts and vision. And he may be genuinely overconfident—overestimating the value of his modernizing ideas, born as they might be from an education at the best of contemporary business schools.
The two are, in a very real sense, unknowns to each other. And, to avoid potential business disaster, it is critical that they be introduced and reconciled.
This is the delicate work of family-business advisors, who, through disclosing relationship patterns; applying techniques such as psychological assessment tools and behavior modification; teaching skills in diplomacy and negotiation; prepare a ground for mutual understanding and respect.
It seems inevitable that there will be contention between fathers and grown sons in a family business. But by learning each other’s abilities, desires and ideas a ground can be prepared where each generation learns from the other, and a constructive forward motion established.
 This article reflects ideas in Moveed Fazail, 2013. Fighting for the Crown: The father/son relationship in first generation family enterprises. Family Form Practitioner, July 16, 2013