By : Don Tyler


It is a true blessing for a successful business to have a patriarch or matriarch (I’ll use patriarch for both roles for simplicity in this article) that has moved out of their day-to-day leadership role, yet is still available to share their unique wisdom when the need occurs. They are the ones who forged the business into what it is today. They are the wise and respected elder who helped build the business “on their watch” and still provide subtle, and often powerful, influence over major decisions.

Working with these patriarchs over the years, I’ve observed some consistent patterns in their behaviors. They don’t assume a patriarch role just because they are the oldest or own the bulk of the assets. Patriarchs have earned that title over many years of thoughtful, honorable, impartial, noble, principled leadership of their company with unquestioned success. They are known throughout the community as a key influencer and the level-headed arbiter of difficult choices.

Once they have transitioned from leader to patriarch, they rarely interject their opinion unless it is requested, but are ready with a thoughtful response when called upon. They seem to know everything that is happening in the business, even when they’ve been traveling for three weeks without a single phone call back home. Members of the youngest generation respect them more than any other person and can be found asking the patriarch for advice—often when no one else is looking.

Frankly, these patriarchs are rare. They are willing to risk sharing their control of the business just at the time that they are reaping the rewards of their hard work, so subsequent generations can learn while they still have some influence. In my discussions with them, they are humble, reserved, and watchful. They know what really matters today, and also know what won’t make a bit of difference five minutes from now—let alone five years from now. They tend to say the least in business meetings, but garner everyone’s full attention when they choose to speak. They are rarely interrupted by others, rarely challenged, and almost always…right.

I have met them in the Sacramento and Imperial Valleys of California, the hog and grain farms of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the dairies of Wisconsin, Idaho and Minnesota, and the cattle ranches and feedlots throughout the western states. In all these places these patriarchs are incredibly similar. They have the same commanding presence, the same self-confidence, the same humility, the same universal respect throughout the family and community, and the same predisposition for being right regardless of the question or circumstances.

Here are some suggestions for transitioning from leader to patriarch:

• Learn to let go of control. Whether it’s the decision-making process, the final say in every discussion, the complete control of finances, or the day-to-day management of production, you need to give the next generation the chance to prove themselves under your watchful guidance.

• Stay at 30,000 feet. Don’t micromanage or hover over all production activities. Be available, but don’t be within easy reach.

• Like a good mentor, don’t answer every question. But… you can question their answers.

• Practice sharing stories and anecdotes only when they directly fit the situation, and share them infrequently. Stories that are shared too often are rarely appreciated for their educational value.

• Keep learning. In the rapid pace of today’s business cycles, technology and market volatility you need to have current knowledge to ensure that your perspectives are still valid and appropriate. You also set an example for the next generations.

• Focus on long-term strategies. Look at trends that point to the future and help the current generation relate their existing strategies to those that are needed for success far into the future. Use your experience to hone their long-term strategic thinking for generations to come.

Having a resident patriarch is a true blessing. Those families without one have no idea what they are missing, nor can they fully compensate for their comparative disadvantage.

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