ToM: The other side of the coin

A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2017 edition of CFI Magazine

The children of self-made success stories have much to live up to. Finding their own path to fulfilment means second generation individuals must navigate parental expectations and the dangers of self-doubt – the theory of mind (ToM). But achieving self-worth is possible and need not be fraught with intergenerational conflict.

The season finale to Sky Atlantic series Billions offered a profound insight into the complexities of familial relationships among the super-rich.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it focuses on the combative relationship between fictitious hedge fund billionaire Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod and US Attorney General Chuck Rhoades. Both characters are exemplary in their respective fields but – driven by an overwhelming urge to be the best and to triumph over their adversary – they are flawed and often lapse into illegal and immoral behaviour.

Billions treats its audience to a glimpse of the trappings of a lavish lifestyle but also reveals the myriad challenges ultra-wealth brings.

In particular, we see the intricacies of Chuck’s relationship with his father, self-made millionaire Charles Rhoades Snr.

Charles Snr exhibits the classic characteristics we associate with being a self-made, multi-millionaire billionaire business called a G1 (generation one – who made the money) . He is driven, successful, and often myopic in his approach to life. He lives vicariously through Chuck, imposing his own unfulfilled dreams of becoming governor onto his son.

Charles believes that every effort he makes, every calculated strategy – notably to bring down Chuck’s nemesis Axe – is entirely in his son’s interest.

Yet seen through the eyes of Chuck, this father son relationship is anything but symbiotic. Chuck feels manipulated by his father; that his own G2 interests, goals and lifestyle choices are dismissed.

Chuck is an archetypal generation two individual. He desperately wants to please his father yet wants to meet his own ambitions in life, and while the two share a common goal of achieving the role of governor for Chuck, the ways in which they want to get there are at odds.

Ultimately these differences cause, what is at its essence, a loving relationship to break down as the two parties fail to understand the others desires, perception and experiences.

Finally, after one run in too many, Charles Snr disowns his son.

The brutality with which Charles terminates the relationship is shocking and it is made all the worse for the fact that father and son could have established a meaningful and sustainable relationship.

A lack of communication, mutual understanding and respect led to the irretrievable differences.

Unfortunately, this is all too common in wealthy families.

Theory of Mind

While Rhoades Snr and Jnr understand some of each other’s emotions, their ability to really understand and predict how the other will behave is poor. They lack what psychologists call Theory of Mind (ToM).

ToM is the ability to not only understand that other people have minds of their own but using the knowledge of one’s own behaviours and emotions to work effectively with others.

Having ToM allows humans to make judgements about how others will react and to adjust their own behaviour accordingly. For example, a person with ToM understands that their partner, who has been at the office for 16 hours, will be tired so they make them dinner when they get home from work rather than suggesting their partner cooks.

People have varying levels of ToM and while the Rhoades, and others like them, do not lack this skill entirely they do not always apply it effectively.

Case study: The challenge

Moving to a less Hollywood example, the Jones family, an illustrative but fictitious family established manufacturers of Widgets Ltd in the UK for 35 years, found itself facing similar familial discord.

Mother Rosie, aged 72, has been running the company since her husband and father of her three children died 20 years earlier.

Her eldest son James, aged 39 and heir apparent to the business, is and keen to take over the reins and relieve his mother of day-to-day responsibility.

James has built up a long history of relevant experience. He gained a degree on finishing school and went on to complete his MBA before working at McKinsey for the next decade.

He then came to work for Widgets Ltd, starting in junior management before working his way up to director level.

James’s younger sister also works for the business as a marketing associate, while his younger artist brother is based in Paris and has no direct connection to the family firm.

James’s frustration lies in his mother’s reluctance to relinquish control of the business. The problem is exacerbated by James’s father’s dying wish that the business grow into an international enterprise. Rosie, however, is keen to play it safe, keep the business contained and limit investments and expansion.

James fears he may not be given access to the business until he is into his fifties by which point the opportunity to expand the enterprise will have been lost taking with it his relationship with his mother.

At the same time as disregarding James’s expansion plans, Rosie repeatedly reiterates how her efforts are all for her children and is equally frustrated that her son fails to appreciate her point of view.

Rosie feels she is responsible for the extremely comfortable lifestyle that her children have enjoyed, yet James feels this material attention is of little value while his mother fails to recognise his skills, talents and ambition.

For many G1 individuals their genetic make-up, psychological and neurological development, make it incredibly difficult to empathise with their children or accept a differing view point. It is often said that having great success often feeds our narcissistic sense of self.

This is by no means always the case, but for Rosie – and our fictitious example of Charles Rhoades senior – a sense of self-righteousness prohibits them from seeing their children’s side. The key issue is the inability to experience life from the shoes of others in particular children. They lack ToM.

Meanwhile generation two are either so overwhelmed by their parents’ success that they acquiesce and capitulate to generation one’s dominance and fail to make themselves heard.

Or, at the other end of spectrum, generation two are so frustrated by their parents’ dogmatism that they rebel and abandon the family business completely.

This creates a challenging environment in which James needs a cadre of skills that he does not really possess. He too, lacks ToM.

The Solution: Integral Consulting

James must be flexible, but in a skilful way.

He will need to accept that his mother will unlikely relax her position. Instead he needs to validate Rosie’s positive input by praising his mother for the work she has done in creating a stable and secure environment. After all it is thanks to her that he has fulfilling employment and lifelong opportunities in the successful family business and especially life from her life.

James must make clear how much he appreciates his mother and reinforce her sense of self-worth and achievement.

Only then is Rosie more likely to hear James’s side.

It is at this point that James can put forward his plans for the business, but this must be done in such a way as to not threaten Rosie’s need for stability as she approaches retirement.

James could suggest taking a portion of the non-core Widget business and using that to build an international operation. Once he is successful in his endeavours, and Rosie no longer feels threatened, James will have a greater opportunity to take over more control.

This approach applies the integral consulting model explored in an earlier article. The idea, based on Ken Wilber’s Theory of Everything and explored in more detail in Simon Bloom’s book Passing the Buck: How to Avoid the Third Generational Wealth Gap, sees our reality divided into four interrelated quadrants.

The upper left quadrant covers how individuals feel and the upper right is how they express those feelings.

The bottom quadrants tackle the collective – in this case the family business.

The lower left quadrant refers to the group’s collective culture and goals, while the lower right comprises how the group’s health and ability to grow and adapt.

SBC built a model of successful wealth management based on the All Quadrants, All Levels (AQAL) model which says the internal and external individual positions must be aligned with the external and internal collective experience.

In the Widget Ltd solution, the AQAL theory is put in practise since James’s and Rosie’s individual behaviours and experiences are eventually correlated with that of the collective to allow the business and the family to achieve their goals and targets.

Not all parents and children in wealthy families are destined to face such conflicts and, in many cases, where these do arise the two sides will be able to communicate effectively to resolve their differences. Plenty of wealthy individuals have plenty of ToM and exhibit excellent communication skills.

However it may be that an impartial third party is needed to bring objectivity and perspective when conflict arises and ensure family relationships, and the business itself, survive and thrive long into the future.

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