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Families Who Fail To Spend All Their Time On Power – In Conversation With Jay Hughes

Joseph Reilly

11 January 2024

Regular Family Wealth Report contributor and family office consultant Joe Reilly is starting a series on his Inheritance Podcast on the work of Jay Hughes and his collaborators in conjunction with the James E Hughes, Jr Foundation

Today he talks to Jay, author of Family: The Compact Among Generations. They discuss the role of the advisor within a family, how one becomes an elder, and the idea of wealth as wellbeing.  

Joe Reilly: Is there anything a family advisor can learn from a courtier? Are there important differences?  
Jay Hughes:
The great development of a person. Who is the highest utility to a family is to become their Privy Counselor. The Privy Counselor, or before that, the Chamberlain, was the person who slept outside the King's bedroom, or at the bed, at the foot of the King's bed. Not in the bed with the Queen, no, never. But was essentially, physically, as well as morally and intellectually, the very last person before the king. 

To become the Privy Counselor or Head Regent is another way to define it, which is to fulfill the great professional mission of someone serving great families. And that is to be a great number two and make someone else greater than he or she would have been. Not by manipulation, but by true assistance and true caring.  

Courtiers have a bad reputation, correctly, because they were by and large seeking something from someone. The privy counselor is seeking to give something to someone. So being a great number two, as I define it for modern times I think it's the highest calling of a person in our profession. 

Joe Reilly: Are there things a number two should avoid? 
Jay Hughes:
The first thing you must avoid in this world, in this work, is to want to be your client. If you want to be your client, then go and be your client. But don't get into this work. If you want to be in this work, it's because service is your interest in this lifetime. 

Another way to define this role is someone who becomes the Chief for Peace, which is the highest role in the Iroquois tribe, for example, is not the Chief of War. So you have to not be your client and you have to not care that you're not your client. You have to care that you have a different role in this world in this particular lifetime. And that is to help that person be greater than he or she would be and greater in the sense of a higher level of humanity that they then can serve in the role they're in. History has a lot of great regents. You can learn a lot by regency, which is a form of trustee in a way. When the king's too old or the queen's too young or the prince is away, who runs the place? 

You're there when the need arises, but you don't become the principal. 

Joe Reilly: Does that help you rise above the politics of the family?
Jay Hughes: When I was in the process of leaving the practice of law back in the year 2000, why did I do that?  I liked being a lawyer. I'm the sixth generation lawyer in my family. I have, my son-in-law is the seventh and my new granddaughter is the eighth. So we're extending that lineage. 

Why did I leave the law, Joe? Many people know that I did because the law left me. I discovered, and I should have known that, but I didn't, that the profession of law requires you to have a single client, not a family. You can get waivers, but I had some families with already 200 members. 

And what did they want from me? 

They wanted me to help all of them as a unit move through the next two generations. That's what they wanted. They didn't want a director; they didn't want a chief of the orchestra, no. They wanted someone to work with them in that kind of regent process I was talking about, a caring process, that they would achieve two more successful transitions. The law made that impossible. Because I couldn't get waivers from 200 people, that was ridiculous. So I left the law to go and work with, at that point, 12 families for 10 years to see if we could make those transitions. My work was to help them help their system culturally grow to be able to adopt new ways of doing things, if that was necessary, and adapt to the new issues that the rising generations were facing. That's what great regents do. I wasn't a great one, but that was what I was doing.  

We want to understand human groups over a long period of time, and nobody in our field studies social anthropology, and yet it is the one academic subject that actually bears directly on our field. In great tribes that are, let's say, a thousand years old, they have a process in which they look among the young children for the people who might be the caretakers of the mental and physical wellbeing, the lineage and the history, and the spiritual development of that community. They might be the people who are interested in developing a long-term system of governance that enables a secure next generation to rise in noble professions. That has always been the formal functions of a great tribe. The task of the elders is to discover those people and get them into the flow, not the normal flow of the work of that tribe, but into the flow of those four functions within the tribe. Because you can't actually have a successful tribe without the four functions: medicine, law, ministry, and high academia. Which is, how do we know we're human? 

So what is the progression of those people? The progression of those people is that they move through the normal stages of life in that tribe, often moving into one of those functions within the tribe, along with the other things that one does at different stages of life. And then some of them, not all of them, become elders. To be an elder is an anointed position. It's not something you have because you're old. The elder is the person who is really interested in the next hundred year cycle of that tribe and its wellbeing. 

Wealth is wellbeing as we're all now speaking about it. The two transitions that I think are most interesting is their discovery of the new elders, and then the process of anointing them, actually recognizing that they weren't being given power, they were being given authority. Oh, what a difference. Great families learn how to share authority. They spend no time on power. Families that are failing spend all their time on power. 

Joe Reilly: Is there an individuation process for the elders themselves?  Did they have to cross a certain boundary in their own life?  
Jay Hughes:
Yes, there would have been some, almost always some midlife crisis in which they discover who they truly are. Not yet, not different from the function they're performing, but how to perform that function. Is it about me as an expert or is it about me possibly imagining sometime I might be a master? What a difference that journey is. The journey of the expert is sadly way too often, much too short. The journey of a rising elder through a beginner's mind, and then the journeyman attempting to use the mind, to the master potter who always makes sure that there's a flaw in the pot for the human reality. 

It's a whole different journey. 

Joe Reilly: So you think there's a certain letting go and hoping that the answers will come, or knowing the answers will come versus trying to know everything. 
Jay Hughes:
To use a very modern term, the elder in the profession has no product, none. The expert only has a product. The elder, the person in service, says to the family, I can help you with the process. You already have a process. And I can help you if you'd like to evolve that process, not change it. Evolve it. 

That's a whole different process too, isn't it? Change is radical. Evolution is human. How do I find within the process the next orderly place for this process to evolve.  

I think we all know that if you say to a human being there's no product, it's a process, they're probably going to leave the room as fast as they can go. 

Of course, they will. And yet, for those who are truly interested in whether there is a third or fourth flourishing generation, they're already thinking out 50, 60 years. They understand that it can only be a process, and that no product can be of any use. Now, there can be an assessment, you could call that a product, that can be useful in the process of understanding how to evolve. 

But that's not a product. That's a process within the process. If I say it as an example, great families all spend some of their early time, when they begin to look long term on how everyone in the family learns. 

Of course they do. Because if you're going to be on a journey with somebody, together for 50 or 60 years, you'd probably like to know that when you're making joint decisions together, and you're going to make hundreds of them, that person has received the information in the best way he or she can process it. 

That's the only way a family can succeed. A product can't fix anything. Processes are what works.