Howard Gardner, professor of education and psychology at Harvard University, writes many books on leadership and creativity. One book, Leading Minds, demonstrates how a leader can develop a mindset to pass on values to loved ones.
Gardner argues that what makes a leader is the ability to tell a kind of story — one that explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision. Churchill told the story of Britain’s indomitable courage in the fight for freedom. Kennedy inspired America’s innovative culture in its quest to send a man to the moon. Gandhi spoke about Indian dignity and non-violent protest. And Martin Luther King Jr. told of how a great nation is racially equal.
Stories give a group a shared identity and sense of purpose.
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre also emphasized the importance of narrative to the moral life. “Man,” he writes, “is, in his actions and practice as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.” It is through narratives that we learn who we are and how we are called to behave. Take the Bible, for instance.
In Deuteronomy, Moses, when instructing the Israelites of their duties and responsibilities before entering the Promised Land, warns the people no less than fourteen times not to forget. If they forget the past, they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Not only are the people commanded to remember, but they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.
You may find it interesting to note that there is no biblical Hebrew word for history. The closest equivalent is divrei hayamim, “chronicles”. Deuteronomy uses the root zachor, meaning memory.
History refers to others who acted before us. Memory invokes our own involvement in the story. Biblical Hebrew, therefore, asserts that believers collectively participated in the story. Jewish families who read the Passover Haggadah are familiar with this concept through one of the passages. In the passage, a wicked son does not consider himself part of the story and is admonished accordingly. “God brought us forth from Egypt,” he is told.
The greatest of leaders therefore create a collective memory so that the entire group feels like a part of the historical narrative. You can still see the power of this biblical idea today. If you visit the Washington DC Presidential memorials, you will see that each one carries an inscription taken from their words: Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg address “With malice toward none; with charity for all…” Each memorial tells a story.
In contrast, many London monuments have no narrative, no inscription, simply a name — like Churchill. England does not have the same kind of sweeping national narrative because it is largely based not on a covenant but on hierarchy and tradition.
So how do we apply these lessons to your family and loved ones? What made you into the you you are now? What are your family’s covenants, the principals and attributes that you believe most important? How can we fashion a system to pass these values down to future generations?
So many of my clients, when discussing their estate plans, voice a common concern: “I don’t want my wealth to somehow weaken my children’s drive and ambition.”
This concern has merit. The old saying, “shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations” is found in many different cultures. In Japan, the expression goes, “rice paddies to rice paddies in three generations.” The Scottish say, “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells, and his son begs.”
Family wealth can only survive through a family narrative, passed down from generation to generation. Each generation needs to feel like a part of the original narrative and have an obligation to continue its journey. I believe that we can amend our estate plans to tell our stories and build our narrative for all our loved ones.
Here, I intentionally broaden the definition of wealth. One need not be monetarily wealthy to have those things most important in life, including dignity, respect, honesty, friendship and loyalty.
Why not include, on the opening pages of a will or trust then, how your family’s wealth was acquired? Describe the trials and tribulations it took to accumulate and distribute this inheritance, and what you hope subsequent generations will not only understand but build upon. Enunciate your family’s core covenants. Build your legacy.
It’s always best to discuss these important topics with your loved ones during life. Memorializing your family legacy, however, can certainly be accomplished in your estate planning documents. I’m working on a way to systemize this process in the coming months as part of our unique process, The Family Estate & Legacy Program®.
In the meantime, my suggestion for those of you who this speaks to, is to take the time to write down your thoughts. You probably recall important lessons that your parents and grandparents taught you, probably using a story. Don’t let those valuable insights die with you!
A true leader tells the family story to pass on a shared sense of value and purpose. The families that prosper tend to be the ones that, from generation to generation, become part of a shared narrative. How are you going to create that narrative for your family?
© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.