Wrestling with Legacy in a Family Business

Legacy is an intangible, invisible force that affects the decision making of the next generation in a family business. Psychologists call the motivation to build legacy generativity, and it stems from the concern for the welfare, well-being, and security of future generations. Developing and sustaining legacy is a way for family members to perpetuate the family identity and purpose. But are legacies always positive? The paradox is that legacy has been shown to lead to both positive and negative outcomes for organizations and individuals. Legacy is an asset to a family business when it serves as a source of identity, inspiration, and direction. The downside is that legacy can also be a liability — this is the inherent paradox of legacy. Firms can become so entrenched in tradition and “the way things have always been” that they constrain innovation, change, and organizational agility. The challenge for family business leaders is to manage this legacy paradox.

Jon M. Huntsman, founder of the Huntsman Corporation, passed away in 2018. When I asked his son, David Huntsman, about the lasting influence of his father on his role as president of the Huntsman Foundation, he said, “Having grown up in a family business, my father’s influence continues to be ever-present in my life — whether I recognize that consciously or not. I know exactly what he would say or do in just about every business situation, because I watched it firsthand for years. His impact, although he is no longer here, still affects even the little decisions I make throughout the day — things I do or choose not to. Part of him will always be with me, not just in business but in all aspects of life.”

Legacy is an intangible, invisible force that affects the decision making of the next generation in the business, and in life in general. Legacy has also been called the “connective tissue” that links generations in a family business. Jon Huntsman’s values, beliefs, and behaviors live on in the lives of his descendants long after his passing. Legacy begins when the values, norms, knowledge, and beliefs of earlier generations are entrenched in the current generation. Once embedded, next-generation leaders become the “keepers” of the family/business legacy. Until legacy is adopted, the things that make up someone’s legacy are simply characteristics of the previous generation. But once rooted, legacy becomes a conviction that guides the subsequent behaviors of the next generation.

But are legacies always positive? The paradox is that legacy has been shown to lead to both positive and negative outcomes for organizations and individuals. Legacy is an asset to a family business when it serves as a source of identity, inspiration, and direction. Jay Barney’s research suggests that it may be the only real source of sustainable competitive advantage for a family business. Legacy is rare, imperfectly imitable, valuable, and sustained within the company — competitors can copy products and processes, but it’s impossible to copy a company’s legacy.

For David Huntsman, experience with his father cannot be copied and is, for him, rare and valuable. He has learned from the experience that only he and his firm have had, and as a result, his father’s values and wisdom live within him and his firm. His father’s legacy has always been good for the company and the family, and maintaining that deeply-held legacy is rational. To do anything contrary to that legacy would be a violation of the values and norms that define their family and their family business. Moving away from legacy runs the risk of losing the competitive advantage that the family business has always enjoyed.

The downside is that legacy can also be a liability — this is the inherent paradox of legacy. Firms can become so entrenched in tradition and “the way things have always been” that they constrain innovation, change, and organizational agility. Family members may feel trapped by the past and may therefore face a moral dilemma when they’re pushed to sustain the legacy and brush aside a desire to build their own vision and strategy, which might ultimately be necessary to sustain and grow the company. Therein lies the paradox: feeling the need to live the embedded values, beliefs, behaviors, and knowledge of the past, which might conflict with a desire to innovate and move away from the legacy that has always defined them. Strong adherence to legacy can create organizational inertia that makes it difficult for leaders to modify the firm’s strategy, brand, and routines when necessary.