Martin Luther King – Family Business Sage?

This past week it was Martin Luther King Day in the US. This prompted a number of comments and mentions on social media, some of which were very educational and enlightening.

I am always on the lookout for blog inspirations, but this one caught me by surprise. I know that Martin Luther King made lots of inspiring speeches and was instrumental in moving race relations forward in the US, even if a lot of work remains to be done.

What I had never expected was to read one of his quotes and instantly have an “A-Ha” moment relating to family business, or, more importantly, business families.

Here is what someone tweeted last Monday, along with a photo of MLK:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools”.

I talk a lot about the importance of creating harmony within families, and it seems to me that his words “learning to live together as brothers” was intended to conjur up images of the prototypical “one big happy family”, even if such families are not really as common as one would hope.

The assumption is that within a family, strong bonds, based on brotherly love, should help everyone want to work together to remain a strong family. When one family member is sick or weak, the others pitch in, because they are family, and eventually they may need help and will expect the same.

Many business families take advantage of this “familiness” and use it to benefit not only their family, but also their business. Telling the world that your company is a “Family Company” seems to be “in” lately, and of course I applaud this concept.

But what about the second part of Dr. King’s quote? What is he getting at with “perish together as fools”? My guess is that with respect to the American people and the variety of different races represented within, if this great country were to be torn apart because they could not learn to get along, very few others would pity them.

When you live in what many believe is one of the greatest countries in the world, if you fall off your perch, few will feel sorry for you. In fact, they will likely look at you with derision, and assume that you must have been fools to “blow it”.

And what about business families, and their cousins, families of wealth (for lack of a better term)?

Are there any well known families that you know of where you are, who have been around for at least a couple of generations? When do you hear or read about them? Sometimes, it is when they do something good, like giving to a philanthropic cause. These types of news stories have a very short news cycle.

But what about family feuds, lawsuits, siblings suing each other, family vs. family court cases? They are often fascinating, like a car accident that you just cannot look away from. And they can go on for months and years.

What do we think about when we think about the members of those families? Fools? Why couldn’t they just “live together as brothers”?

When you “perish together as fools” there will be plenty of finger-pointing, happy lawyers on both sides, and enough fractured relationships to last a few generations in your family.

Not many people will feel sorry for you, because you were lucky enough to get to that high perch first.

Please try to put a bit more effort into the “living together as brothers” part of the quote. It will be well worth it.

When things start to go badly between family members, they rarely get better on their own. It takes work, and usually a neutral outsider, to help get things going in the right direction, to help create the harmony you need, to support the legacy you want.

Or you can choose to perish together as fools. It’s your choice.