One of the biggest struggles of a family business is surviving succession. According to Lloyd Steier, Professor in the Department of Strategic Management and Organization at the University of Alberta School of Business and Director of the Alberta Business Family Institute, the writings of William Shakespeare are one place to look for strategies of survival – “Shakespeare offers us eternal lessons and shows us that these issues have been around for hundreds of years.”

Steier coins the experiences of modern family business as illustrations of Shakespeare’s legendary writings and refers to three Shakespearean methods of surviving succession. For this first post in a three-part series, the first Shakespearean method of surviving succession from King Lear is to remember the importance of family.

King Lear is the story of a King faced with dire consequences after handing down his kingdom to only two of his three daughters. Steier observes comparable threats of sibling rivalry to the succession of family businesses. Shakespeare portrays King Lear as a foolish leader – a character Steier finds persistent throughout the family business experience. King Lear was foolish for believing his decision to hand down his kingdom to only two of his three daughters would be a success. Like other leaders in family business, King Lear failed to recognize the importance of family.

Though mistaken, King Lear was incredibly intelligent. In modern society as in Shakespeare, the Fool is often the “smartest person in the room,” says Steier. King Lear faced his own foolishness head on and accepted the fact that he could never divide his kingdom without transforming both his identity as a King and as a father. The character Fool in the play (who, in fact, becomes the King’s loyal advisor and protector) confronts the King with the metaphor of an egg:

Well, when I cut the egg in half and eat the whites, the yolk will be in two parts like two golden crowns. When you cut your own crown and kingdom in half and gave away both parts, you were as foolish as the old man in the old story who carries his donkey on his back instead of letting the donkey carry him. … If I’m telling the truth like a fool in saying all this, whip the first person who thinks I sound foolish. [Translated by No Fear Shakespeare]

When family businesses experience the struggle between familial and corporate roles, “people often discover that it is family that matters and not identity associated with the business” says Steier. The next time your family business is disrupted by sibling rivalries, don’t be foolish like King Lear – be wise and cherish your family.

Teaser: In future posts, watch for lessons from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. 

Sources:
https://www.folio.ca/how-shakespeare-still-informs-todays-family-businesses/
https://www.ualberta.ca/business/about/contact-us/school-directory/lloyd-steier
https://www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/lear/

Keith Baldwin is a business transactions and securities lawyer with a forty year history of serving clients’ legal needs. Keith focuses his practice on business relationships, including mergers and acquisitions, agreements among owner-entrepreneurs, and best practices for corporate governance. Keith can be reached via email at keithbaldwin@dwt.com or directly at 425.646.6133.