Family Business Insights

The Succession TV Drama: Lessons From Twisted Family Dynamics

Joseph Reilly New York May 30, 2023


One of FWR's regular contributors recently sat down with an executive and business consultant to discuss the lessons and warnings from the popular TV drama.

Regular Family Wealth Report contributor and family office consultant Joe Reilly talks to Paul Edelman, of Edelman & Associates in Boston, an executive and family business consulting firm. Based on the twisted dynamics of the recently ended television series Succession, they discuss pragmatic and constructive ways to approach the characters' issues and how a real-world consultant would cope with the ultimately impossible clients.

Joe Reilly: As a psychologist; family business coach and fan of the HBO show Succession, how would you go about assessing the Roy family?  
Paul Edelman: Succession provides a close-up view of the Roy family as the siblings vie to succeed their ailing father as CEO of the world’s most powerful media empire. The show fascinates us in part because the family’s struggles (like those of the real-life media families that inspired the show) have consequences affecting the entire world.
Ideally, choosing the next CEO for a family enterprise would be an exercise in collaborative decision-making. All affected parties would participate in some way. There would be a joint assessment of the context. This would include identifying outcomes the various parties hope to accomplish and those they seek to avoid. A range of options would be generated and evaluated in terms of their implications for accomplishing the identified goals. The final decision would be made by integrating objective and subjective information from a variety of sources.
The Roy family is far from collaborative. The patriarch, Logan Roy, lives by the creed “my way or the highway.” He never states explicitly what he wants for himself or his family. He shows little genuine interest in what his offspring, wives, or mistresses want either, except to the extent that this information might be used to manipulate them.
Similarly, the siblings, Kendall, Roman, and Shiv see each other through a competitive lens. So, there are serious obstacles to collaborative decision-making here. 

What are those major obstacles?    
One of the biggest is Logan Roy’s difficulty in acknowledging and accepting his own mortality. All of us have mixed feelings when contem-plating what will happen when we are gone. Some are better able to integrate those feelings. Others are more likely to find their ability to think clearly, solve problems, and make decisions disrupted. 

Another obstacle is that the more we experience anxiety or other unpleasant feelings, the more self-centered or inwardly focused we become. You can see this transiently when someone is ill or in pain. Some would call this “narcissism.” I prefer to avoid diagnostic labels because they distract us from under-standing the mechanism that is operating.

The Roys are constantly trying to cope with a myriad of unpleasant feelings. This is one of the show’s great ironies, given all the creature comforts they enjoy. The coping mechanisms they employ are largely ineffective in terms of enabling joint problem solving and decision making in the service of achieving shared goals.

Like his offspring, Logan doesn’t behave well in the presence of uncomfortable feelings. This makes it hard for him to be proactive in considering possible successors and planning for business continuity. He is unable to think clearly about who would be best to succeed him or on what basis he should choose among the various possibilities.

Someone less disrupted by unpleasant feelings might say, “I'd like to have some objective basis for making this decision. Let’s see if we can identify some job-related characteristics, we can assess that will have a reasonable chance of predicting success in the role.” 

We don’t see this happen in Succession. There’s no evidence Logan’s using a systematic process to assess his offspring. Rather, he seems focused on the enjoying his power, even to the extent that it might produce a range of negative consequences for himself, the business, his family, and even the world. 

Since his principal motivation is to get his way, he’s vulnerable to his kids' manipulative efforts to curry favor with him. They take turns saying, "Hey dad, I'm your guy (or I'm your girl).” A lot of the show revolves around this. 

What do you think of the idea that Logan views himself as very scrappy, and as one who has had to fight for everything he’s got, and he’s trying just to just recreate that grit in his children?  
That's a reasonable hypothesis. It's an armchair game to speculate about the possible causes of others’ behavior. From my perspective as a coach, or someone helping with behavioral assessment, or when I'm facilitating a decision-making process, I don't tend to think in terms of causality. Rather, I focus on identifying the desired outcomes of the various players and what they say or do to try to accomplish those. Then, I consider the degree to which that behavior is effective. 

So, let's say Logan’s goal was to transition the business successfully to some-one who would take over as CEO and perform the job effectively according to a measure like revenues, shareholder satisfaction, or the stock price. 

If the stock price stayed high, and that was your measure, you might say he’s been effective. If that’s what he was trying to do, then he did a great job of it. On the other hand, if his goals included developing his offspring into effective leaders, or fostering positive relationships between them, you would reach another conclusion. 

In Logan’s case, it looks like he might be one of those CEOs whose goals in-clude demonstrating that no one could ever do his job as well as he does. His behavior seems likely to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In season one, there’s an episode (S1E7 “Austerlitz”) where the family works with a therapist. I'm curious what your thoughts would be if you were in that seat.  
When a family calls, my first aim is to learn some things about the context and about the desired outcomes of the people involved. Then, I look to understand what might be making it difficult to achieve those outcomes. The goal is to integrate this information and use it to create a course of action. 

It's a reasonable bet that if they have made the effort to call me, there's some difficulty involved. It's the rare family where everything is going swimmingly, and they sit around and say, “Let's bring in an advisor to talk about how we could do even better.” I'd love to work with those families. There just don’t seem to be as many of them out there. 

If you consider the difficulty in behavioral terms, it almost always has some-thing to do with a relative inability to engage in collaborative problem-solving. 

So, I wonder, to what degree are they motivated to collaborate? It’s an empirical question. You can ask yourself what a sign would be suggesting a desire to collaborate on the part of the people involved. Once you attune yourself to looking for those signs, you begin to gather data and let the data speak to you. 

If you watch the episode with the therapist, my guess is you will see nothing to suggest that these individuals are capable of or motivated toward collaborative problem-solving. This suggests that the odds of successful intervention are low. In other words, I'd say to myself, “Don't be tempted to think you're going to walk in and get these people to change who they are.” 

So, if I want to do something constructive, the best I can do is to structure an opportunity for them to get together and ask questions that get them thinking. I’d ask about what they want to accomplish and what they want to avoid. 

With the Roy family, it’s going to be hard to get honest answers. People typically find it easier to talk about things they associate with positive feelings. This applies to articulating their desired outcomes. To get beyond this, I’d say:

In my experience, beyond the desired outcomes you’ve identified so far, there may be others you feel less comfortable sharing. Would you be willing to take time to think about what might fall into that category? Is so, we can include what you come up with in your thinking about what to do here.

Hopefully, this would get some of the hidden stuff on the table. If they say “no,” I’d have to say, “Okay, just wanted to check.”

In the long run, they may just continue doing what they were already doing, but perhaps some benefits could come from having them engage in guided thinking together. 

One of the major problems illustrated in that family is that even if they do agree on a shared goal like “let’s get this merger done,” there’s always at least one person who is going to sabotage themselves or the outcome. Do you have any advice from a psychologist's perspective on how you would deal with that in a family?
Yes, people always have multiple desired outcomes. This can lead to internal or external conflict. This is what the writers are so good at illustrating.

When I start off with new clients, I say to them:

"Look, I have a particular way of working. It’s not psychotherapy and it’s different from some other situations in that it’s not about me telling you what to do. Rather, my focus is on helping you clarify your desired outcomes. That is, “What is it you're trying to accomplish? And what are you trying to avoid?” 

Then, we’ll work together to identify any obstacles that might be in the way. Together we’ll try to figure out how to remove those obstacles. 

It's not rocket science. Instead, you’ll find me asking questions like, “So what makes this hard?” After that, I might ask, “Okay, so what thoughts do you have about what would make it easier?” This is how I work. 

Trying to execute a merger is one desired outcome. But you’ve got multiple decision-makers and multiple influencers each with their own desired outcomes. That leads to all the drama. 

The are many relevant factors or variables. These include how quickly they can execute the deal, at what price, and what's in it for each person. 

Closing the deal will have more benefits for some family members than others. 

Take Tom who heads ATN, the Fox News analog, or Greg, his underling. They’re both constantly trying to figure out which side their bread is buttered on and then they run to that side as quickly as they can. 

So how do you engage in constructive negotiation, constructive problem solving, or conflict resolution?     
I’d attempt, to the extent possible, to get the participants to articulate, in the presence of each other, their desired outcomes. One thing that makes Succession so interesting is that when people on the show speak, the things that they say are just as likely to be untrue, or the opposite of the truth, as they are to be true. 

Tom and Shiv, in discussing their love for each other, lie more often than they tell the truth. That makes it tough. But as a starting point, you could at least sit with them and say, “Okay, what do you each want here? And what are you each trying to avoid?” 

Then you can say, “Okay, given all of that, how can you work together to accomplish the things you want and avoid the things you don’t want? That's how I’d approach it. 

Given the cast of characters on the show, it’s hard to guarantee that I or anyone else would be effective. 

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