I am the eldest of many children. My father was gone by the time I was 7 and my stepfather arrived not too long after. With my stepfather’s arrival in my life, one thing became crystal clear: my birth father would never be the dad I needed, and with the ensuing competition for my mother’s attention, nether could my stepfather. In many ways it felt like it was on me to parent my siblings as well as myself.
As tough as this was, one good thing was that my mother’s youngest sibling, my uncle Ellis, was only nine years older than me. He was smart, funny, and even though other people may not have thought of him as cool, I sure did. Ellis introduced me to my lifelong love affair with music. He introduced me to the exciting world of the burgeoning British Music scene. I fell in love with the Beatles, Rubber Soul and Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, and my favourite Double White Album. There were of course many other bands, like Manfred Man’s Earth Band performing “Blinded by the Light,” which we and everyone else would sing made up lyrics to…Probably something like: “wrapped up like a dude, another comer in the night.” But we weren’t music snobs. We also loved American music, both rock and soul.
Uncle Ellis took me to concerts when at 14 and 15. I saw many amazing US performers, but there was one American performer my uncle took me to see twice, and I went on to see a total of five times: Harry Chapin. If that name doesn’t ring any bell, I’m not surprised. Most people don’t know who he was, but almost everyone over 45 likely remembers his most famous song entitled “Cat’s in the Cradle,” recorded in 1974 and then redone by Ugly Kid Joe in 1990.
This famous song tells a story, like all the best songs do. But this is not the usual mushy love song that every teen-age girl dreams her boyfriend would sing to her. No, “Cat’s in the Cradle” is one of my favourite, and maybe one of the best father and son songs ever written. It tells the tale of a man who faces the pressures of trying to make it in the world and his son’s longing to connect with his father. It begins with the dad saying that he was too busy with work and bills to be there for his son’s “firsts” like walking and talking.
The song goes on to say all the ways the father keeps missing out on seeing his son grow, and how the son makes it okay, because he hopes that one day he’ll be just like his father. And one day he does. He grows up and doesn’t have time for his elderly father. It’s heart-breaking. (I’d quote the lyrics, but copyright laws for music are very strict. You can find the song with lyrics at: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=cat%27s+in+the+cradle+lyrics+harry+chapin
After my own father left, I spent the next 20 or so years feeling like I got cheated out of having a dad. As I’d walk to school in the infamous Manchester England rain, I would see the rich kids arriving at school after being dropped off by parents in beautiful cars and I would fantasize about how great that would be. But the truth is “the grass is always greener” and you never know what goes on behind closed doors. It wasn’t until many years later, as an adult man working in the world of Multi-Generational Family Wealth that I saw 40-50-60 year old and even older men, who had grown up with everything except a father.
In speaking with them, they would never (initially) say that they grew up without a dad. But with time, they would all come to realize that the psychological patterns of their lives were in fact driven by the sense of being fatherless.
You see the problem is, it’s hard to say that you didn’t have a dad when your father remained married to your mom your entire life. When your father would take you into the office with him on the weekends and would even teach you about the business.
But that’s not being a “dad” and we all need a dad. A dad is someone who will cheers us on, lift us up, share his wisdom and most important of all, does the things we want to do, rather than what he’d prefer, or needs to do.
I see how many of these men, often fathers and sons, who sit together in the boardrooms and offices of their companies and although they are but a few feet apart, the emotional gap between then feels more like two people on either side of the grand canyon trying to connect.
I believe that there is a crisis in the world of multi generational families and it’s a crisis of succession, of continuance. Fathers and sons banging heads, not hearing each other and struggling to let go.
The problem often arises as fathers reach the age where the horizon of retirement should be there, but they can’t let go. They (often unconsciously) realize that if they hand over the reins, everything about who they have told themselves they are would seem to fade away. And maybe worse still, the family they told themselves they were doing all this for no longer really want to spend time with them. Their sons will have grown up to be just like they were.
As a business leader, particularly as a father in a multi generation family, stop and take a moment and consider what you can do right now to reconnect with your son? What is the one thing you need to say or do that could make all the difference to the continuance of not just the business, but potentially your relationship? What is one thing you can do so as not to end up regretting that you never were a “dad”?
What is one thing you can do so that your son doesn’t end up being “just like you”?
I look forward to your feedback and comments
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