Bowen Theory: How Can it Help Families of Wealth?

Steve Legler, author, coach and family legacy advisor joined our Tamarind Partners’ podcast, “Family Office Focus,” hosted by Kirby Rosplock, PhD, to discuss his new book, Interdependent Wealth: How Family Systems Theory Illuminates Successful Intergenerational Wealth Transitions. His book discusses how communication breakdown within the family, lack of preparation, and poor family dynamics prevent more families from passing on wealth and business interests than that of any business-related issues within their operating companies. Legler’s book helps practitioners and tacticians address complex family systems and family dynamics that often stifle their wealth transfer and business succession plan follow-through.


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Hi, this is Kirby Rosplock of Tamarind partners and you’re here listening to family office focus. And today we are with Steve Legler, who is the author of Interdependent Wealth. So I’m thrilled to have Steve here today to tell us a little bit more about himself and a lot more about his new book, Steve.

Well, thank you, Kirby for the kind words that you just spoke and also for the kind words that you allowed me to put on the back of the book as an endorsement. That was very much appreciated. A little bit about me. I am based in Montreal, Canada, where I was born and have always lived. I grew up in a business family as a second generation only son of an immigrant entrepreneur and I was being groomed to take over an operating business and when I was in my mid 20s, we had an unexpected liquidity event, which meant that all of a sudden rather than running a family business, I was entrusted the reins of a family office. Of course it was the early 90s. At the time, not too many people knew what a family office was. A lot of people still don’t know today. Thanks to some great books out there, people can figure out and find out what a family office really is. When I got into this field about six seven years ago of advising families, family, businesses and family offices I started to hear a lot about how Bowen family systems theory was something that was really good to know about and understand for people who are working with families on transitioning their wealth from one generation to the next. And at the time, I said well okay, that’s interesting. I’ve heard people talk about this Bowen theory. I’m going to try and find a book that will explain to me what it is about this theory that is useful for people that are working with with families. And long story short, I couldn’t find the book. There were books about Bowen theory, but they weren’t geared towards people working with with business families. And so over the next couple of years, I decided I was going to write the book. And over the last little over a year, I did write the book and it came out in in June and it’s called Interdependent Wealth. And I’m happy to answer whatever questions you have about it.

Why was it so important to write a book about family systems theory. Why do more folks need to understand that important, foundational aspect of family systems and why it’s so critical to understanding how families operate and the dynamics and how that plays into how they function and how things work out and family enterprise and operating companies that don’t don’t even think about the fact that they’re owned by family.

That brings up a saying that I use a lot is that problems that come up in family businesses are very rarely business problems and very often family problems. And so the place where family businesses and family offices often have their biggest challenges are in what John Davis would call the the Family Circle, not the business circle or the ownership circle. And it’s an area that was of great interest to me having grown up in a family business and married into another one. And so Murray Bowen, was a psychiatrist who was born in Kansas in 1913. He served in World War Two and he came back and he realized that there were a lot of people that had mental issues from from, I guess it was PTSD, although they didn’t realize that at the time and as he was working with some of these people coming back, he realized that he was working also with schizophrenic patients. And his theory was that a lot of the problems that people have that that you would have thought would be between their ears are actually in their relationships with other people. And the best example I can give is that he was treating schizophrenic teenagers and young adults. And eventually he realized that just by dealing with the parents, he could often see significant improvement in the child so this was this gave rise to his systems theory in that there’s more importance placed on the system, meaning the relationships of the various people, than inside the individual person. When you work with families who work together, either managing a family office or managing wealth or managing a business, those relationships are founded in people were born into them. They’re very strong relationships that that eventually affect everything else in the business circle as well. And that’s where the tricky problems usually come up. In fact,

and particularly when wealth is of such a magnitude and an operating systems and businesses are likely to transcend lifetimes, right? So they’re going to succeed somebody’s lifetime and impact generations to come. So now you’re thinking about how interdependent wealth and ownership now is going to succeed on and on. And then the dynamic of those relationships carries on through a really the exchange of the entities and the ownership of those entities and that well, so it’s, it’s very charged and I can see how your book would be so relevant and so helpful, particularly to the technicians who may not may know nothing about psychology or systems theory or family systems.

What happens with a lot of people who interact with families is they they are specialists in a certain tactic or certain structures, and then they are confronted with family relationships and they’re they’re frozen because they’re not sure what to do. They’re out of their depth. And so when when I started to learn, because the book that I was looking for did not exist. What I did instead was I enrolled in some Bowen, family systems theory training programs. I live in Montreal, there was one in Burlington, Vermont, which is just across the border, an hour and a half. I did some preliminary work there. Over a couple of years. And then I said this is this is really good. But if I want to write this book, I have to go to the mecca of Bowen theory, and the Bowen Center, which was started by Murray Bowen is at Georgetown University in Washington and they have a postgraduate program that was started by Murray Bowen and it is still going on today. And I enrolled in that program for a couple of years to deepen my knowledge, and to be able to write a book from a good enough base of knowledge of the theory, but not from one where I consider myself an expert when you talk to people in the Bowen theory circles, there are people who’ve been out this 20-30 years and so I’m not trying to say that with my education and training that I’m an expert, but part of the importance of writing the book now was that I still understand what most people don’t understand. And one of the things that I think I do well with my blog and my other book, is that I can talk about complex subjects and explain things in simple enough terms and Bowen theory, the books that are out there, you can find books about Bowen theory, in terms of their relevance to this audience, not so much. Yeah.

Well, tell me something that really surprised you when you were writing the book. Was there something that you hit upon or learn that you didn’t expect when you started out?

You know, it’s one of the things I realized was why nobody wrote this book yet. I discovered along the way, especially when I was at Georgetown, that the number of people there who were you know, trying to learn Bowen theory, who are attached to this family wealth space. I would say maybe 10, maybe 15%. The large majority of Bowen, people, Bowen practitioners, Bowen trainees, they’re either therapists, there’s social workers, and a lot of them are clergy. And so I mean, they deal with families and different problems but but as you were alluded to Kirby a few minutes ago, the wealth that goes from one generation to the next and is expected and hope to continue to go through generations, adds a whole other level of complexity that most of the social workers and therapists don’t get into the fact that you know, they want to keep this wealth in the family. You don’t back down to the to the grandchildren and even generations that aren’t even around yet. So so just what I did learn was this is a real specialized field, but at the same time, there’s so many ways that the aspects of Bowen theory are things that are I can easily pick out when I meet with a family there are often things that I will see, thanks to my Bowen training that I can see and understand because Murray Bowen was a doctor. He was a scientist. He was trying to turn this analysis of human behavior into a science he read.

Can you give us an example maybe you can share an example of, you know, you walk into a new client, and you meet them for the first time? What would you start with that? Immediately connects you to Bowen.

the easiest one for you to notice. And the one that I’ve shared with people the most, is one of the concepts of Bowen theory is about sibling position. And he actually borrowed this one from another German scientist. named Walter Walter Toman. And he liked it so much the corporated into his theories, but but Toman’s work and Bowen’s further work on it was all about how the different sibling positions whether it’s the oldest son, or the youngest, that we all know from our interactions, even just put other families never mind business families, that there are certain roles that people take on in these families that are that are rather predictable. They’re not you know, prescriptive, but you can already start to understand a lot about where people are and what they do and what they say just by recognizing their sibling position. And so that’s probably the easiest place to start to think about what you see when you walk into a family.

That’s a great example. And if you were to just give us a smidge of some of the key takeaways or some of the highlights that you think your readers might walk away with from reading the book that might entice them to go pick up their copy. What are some of the key takeaways or highlights? Um, well, I

wrote the book for practitioners, such as ourselves. I also wrote it for families and at the end of each chapter, I conclude each chapter with a few thoughts for families, for motivated individuals in a family some might call the family champions and for advisors to family so there’s something in there for all those people. For advisors, especially I think it’s that that the whole family should be your client. And that if you are, you know, just dealing with a patriarch or matriarch, you’re missing out on a lot of the service you could be providing to the family. So the the ideal client is the whole family because eventually people pass on and then things move to a different generation of decision making. And if you haven’t already established those relationships, chances are you’re going to lose that client. The other thing that is my big take home message is that typically most people think a long time horizons that are much too short. And if you start to look at longer time horizons, and can see that that teenage child of your client will eventually be in their 30s and eventually be in their 50s and try to look at the arc of all the lives of the people. You’ll be able to see things that you’re not seeing if you’re just looking on a quarterly or an annual basis.

Lastly, Steve, Leave us with maybe one of the readings that you love best from your book before we

call it a wrap. Yeah, somebody told me not to read this one and so that’s what I’m going to read it. Perfect. And it fits nicely with what we were just talking about about the time horizon and the whole family. And I talked about when when you have a baby, a newborn baby, it is easy to think of that infant in your arms on the day they were born and continue to feel like you need to hold them like that. When you change your baby’s diaper. If you fast forward in your mind to the day when you may be wearing diapers and this child or someone they have hired will be changing your diapers. You may look at things differently. This is the first hint about what the word interdependence means to me. And it has to do with the timeframe that we use to look at life. And so the interdependence is recognizing that in your family, you were born as a newborn and you rose to a certain position where you may now be at the top. You won’t stay there forever. Eventually, someone else will be at the top and hopefully you’ll be somewhere where they’re still taking care of you. And if you look at your life through that lens, you’re more likely to treat your children in a way that you recognize that you want them to treat you well, later on. There’s a circle of life thing going on here. And the family system is what holds it all together. And so that’s why I think it’s important that people working with families understand some of these little details better than they do.

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