All posts by David Lansky, Ph.D.

Rights of Man

David Lansky
David Lansky

I have been reading “Rights of Man” published in 1791 by Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of the American Revolution. This monograph was published as a commentary on events leading up to the French Revolution and the governance of nations.  I find it fascinating to consider the relevance of these writings to our work on governance of family enterprises. While there are many interesting parallels, I focus on a few below, with Paine’s words in italics.

Principally, Rights of Man opposes the idea of hereditary government — the belief that dictatorial government is necessary, because of man’s corrupt, essential nature. Paine wrote:

Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies….

Need we say more about the challenge that founders face when they consider passing a business or family wealth to the next generation? You can’t govern from the grave.

Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require…..

And yet it should be emphasized that generations who wish to assume governing responsibility must be competent (educated, informed, engaged) to that task.

The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist….

Legitimate systems of governance evolve from a conscious and intentional decision to freely associate. Some of the most flawed systems of family governance that I have observed are composed of family members who do not believe they have a choice – or do not own the choice they made – to be a part of the system.

The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living or the dead…?

Whatever system of governance is implemented, it should be understood that policies and expectations are dynamic and evolving and should change over time to accommodate a family’s changing circumstances.

It requires but a very small glance of thought to perceive that although laws made in one generation often continue in force through succeeding generations, yet they continue to derive their force from the consent of the living….

It is incumbent upon governed parties to revisit and renew their agreements. Choice in successive generations that is revisited and renewed helps to ensure legitimacy of a system of governance and can help sustain the system over time.


What is A Healthy Family?

by David Lansky, Ph.D.

I was asked the other day what I thought were the qualities of a healthy family….

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

–         Leo Tolstoy.

“I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”

–         US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart

Defining a healthy family is a little like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity: Hard to define, but you know one when you see one.

–         David Lansky

That being said, there are a few consistent qualities that seem to characterize what we call healthy families:

  • LOVE: Love, appreciation and positive regard are expressed by family members toward each other.
  • EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: Family communication is clear, open and frequent.
  • ENCOURAGEMENT: Mutual support, recognition, and respect are given by family to family.
  • COMMITMENT: One observes a sense of family identity and unity,  and sacrifices are made to preserve family well being.
  • FLEXIBILITY: The family demonstrates an ability to adapt to change, as change inevitably occurs.
  • SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS:  The family values friends, extended family, neighbors and community.
  • CLEAR ROLE DEFINITION: There is a role for everyone and everyone has a role in achieving the common good.
  • AFFINITY: They like being together.

And from my colleague Craig Aronoff, with whom I discussed these points, one last quality…

  • COMMON GOOD: a shared sense of common good, common goals and collective well being.

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say:

A healthy family promotes the well being of each individual family member by creating a sense of loving belongingness, by enabling access to resources both within and without the family, by adapting to changing circumstances, and by encouraging open and honest communication amongst its members.



Some Thoughts About Trust

David Lansky
David Lansky

Many people have written about trust in human relationships. I have collected some quotes on the topic and list some of my favorites below:

Our distrust is very expensive. –Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. –Henry L. Stimson

He who mistrusts most should be trusted least. –Theognis

Whenever the people are well–informed, they can be trusted with their own government. – Thomas Jefferson

Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Those who trust us, educate us. — George Eliot

Mistrust begets mistrust. Trust begets accomplishment. –-Tao Te Ching

For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. –H. L. Mencken

Relationships of trust depend on our willingness to look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others. –Peter Farquharson


When Trust Has Been Broken

David Lansky
David Lansky

No matter how well intentioned, family relationships can sometimes go awry and trust can be broken. There is no simple solution to rebuilding trust, but here are some guidelines:

  1. If you have violated another party’s trust, you must admit that a violation has occurred and ask for forgiveness.
  2. Understand that questions about trustworthiness will continue for quite some time. You will therefore need to be tolerant and patient.
  3. Dedicate yourself to the attributes of reliability, intimacy and honesty.
  4. Seek to understand and resolve the reason for the violation, because if that is not managed, trust may well be broken again.

Sometimes there is a lack of trust that stems from historical dynamics, hurts or injustices. If that’s the case, then people in the present may be unable to change the situation no matter how hard they try. In these types of situations, the person or persons who feel they have been victimized will PRESUME that certain others cannot be trusted – even if those individuals have not themselves done anything objectively ‘wrong’. Those who see themselves as victims of a historical injustice will have to work hard on themselves.

  1. If you experience a lack of trust that is rooted in the past, admit to yourself that your lack of trust may not derive from wrongs that have been committed in the present.
  2. Be clear that you WANT to trust again.
  3. Be willing to forgive.
  4. Seek and affirm instances that CONTRADICT your presumption of distrust.

Three Attributes of Trust

David Lansky
David Lansky

Working well together, sharing assets fairly, planning collaboratively for the future – these are among the most critical tasks of an enterprising family. They all have in common a fundamental basis in trust.

In my experience, families who are able to sustain a culture of mutual trust, seem to adhere to three basic elements, whether intentionally or not:

  1. Family members are reliable. They do what they say they will do.
  2. They demonstrate feelings of intimacy. They care about each other and they like being together. 
  3. They are honest with each other. They have open, direct communication — they are willing to speak and to listen when difficult things need to be said.

These elements might come naturally to some, and might need to be learned by others. Either way, trust is something that is built over time.


Our Secret Fears Part 2

David Lansky
David Lansky

In a previous post I discussed some of the fears that accompany family wealth.

Many families do a great job navigating the complexities of wealth – so, what differentiates these families from those who have a more difficult time? Overcoming fears that lead to isolation and developing problem solving skills are essential.  But once the secrets and the dilemmas of wealth are acknowledged, the advice of Charles Collier (Wealth in Families, 2002) can be helpful.

According to Collier, the best practices of families who successfully manage the dilemmas of wealth include:

  1.        They focus on the human intellectual and social capital of their family.
  2.        They stress the priority of each family member’s individual pursuit of happiness.
  3.        They work on enhancing intra-family communication.
  4.        Their timeframe for determining success is long-term.
  5.        They tell and retell the family’s most important stories.
  6.        They create mentor-like relationships when establishing family trusts.
  7.        There is a collaboratively defined family vision statement.
  8.        They teach children and grandchildren the competencies and responsibilities that come with financial wealth.
  9.        They work in getting to really know each family member.
  10.        They give their younger family members as much responsibility as they can manage as soon as possible.

No family can achieve all of these goals, but acknowledging the need, and making the attempt, will bring rewards for a lifetime.


Our Secret Fears

David Lansky
David Lansky

An article – “Secret Fears of the Super Rich”, authored by Graeme Wood – recently appeared in the Atlantic Magazine (April, 2011).

The article is based on a study of wealthy families entitled “The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth,”, that is being conducted by Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.  Although only preliminary results are available, 165 wealthy families responded to the Study’s survey, and were willing to discuss their thoughts and experiences.

I was surprised by the number of people who noticed the article, brought it to my attention, and saw it as a jumping off point for dialogue about the experience of growing up wealthy.  Among those who brought the article to my attention, some were “Super Rich”; others were members of privileged families but not in the “Super Rich” domain.

What these people had in common, I believe, was the desire to have an open discussion about a topic that is among the most personal secrets that we all share. In 15 years as a family therapist, I often found people more comfortable discussing intimate details of their sexual lives than the details of their financial statements.

The results of the survey, as summarized in The Atlantic article, reveal some of the reasons why our financial secrets are so emotionally complex:

  1. Wealthy people who discuss life’s dissatisfactions risk being subjected to “poor little rich kid” attitudes – if you are financially wealthy, you should have nothing to complain about.
  2. The rich are insecure about revealing their wealth to others, out of fear that relationships will subsequently be based more on money than on love. Feelings of isolation often result.
  3. Wealthy parents fear the impact that money will have on their children, so they are reluctant and confused about sharing this information. Will the children grow up with feelings of entitlement? Will they be unable or unwilling to find satisfying work? Or, will they successfully manage the responsibilities of wealth, and not be subject to the dissipation of family wealth captured in the saying “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”?

When wealthy people feel safe enough to discuss their secrets, as many did in the Boston College survey, we learn something most of us probably knew all along – that even great wealth does not bring a great life.

Those people who live a life of integrity, who cultivate deep personal relationships, who discover the pleasures of philanthropy – these people are the truly rich.


You Get What You Give

David Lansky
David Lansky

I was having coffee with Dan, a good friend of mine, a few weeks ago. I was surprised when, apparently from out of nowhere, he said “David, you helped save my marriage.” I was delighted to have been of service, I said, but I had no idea what he was referring to. 

“Tell me more, please!”, I begged, “I”d love to know how I helped, so that I could do it again if need to!”.

“Well”, Dan said, ” A few years ago I asked you what you would say to a family if you had only a few minutes with them to help them get through difficult relationship problems. You thought for a minute and then said ‘If there is something you want from someone in your family, find a way to give it to them.'”

“So”, Dan continued, “I’ve always remembered that.  Last month my wife and I got into a huge fight. I didn’t talk to her for a whole day. I was waiting for an apology from her. I actually thought we were headed for a divorce  Then I remembered  what you said.  And I apologized to her. And we had the best talk we ever had. We understood some incredibly important things about each other. And now I know we are on the right track. 

“So David, that’s how you saved our marriage. ”

Well, I know there are many more reasons why Dan has such a strong marriage. 

But I like to think that there is some truth in what I said.