In the 1990’s, Steve Forbes was attempting to secure the Republican Party’s nomination to run for President of the United States. He was not necessarily a front-runner, but he was highly regarded by many, in part because of his proposal for a flat tax.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the nomination. At some point during the campaign, a question was asked of all the candidates, in order to try to find out what made them think that they would be the right person to lead their country.
The question was quite simple, but Forbes’ honest answer was seen by many as one of the reasons his bid faltered soon after. It seems that many did not think his response was credible. As I recall, Forbes was asked about the biggest challenge he had overcome in his life. So what was the answer that he gave, which pretty well ended his hopes of ever becoming President?
He said that taking over his father’s business was the biggest challenge that he had ever faced. Aaaaah, poor Steve Forbes! His Daddy gave him a big company and he had to work hard to “take over”, ooooh, that sounds really tough.
Bet he would have preferred to be born poor. Rather than judging him based on the job he did in actually taking over the family business, people chose to focus on the fact that this did not seem like a very worthwhile “challenge”. The fact that the current US President was a former “community organizer” is beside the point.
People simply thought that “taking over from Daddy” sounds like a pretty cushy job. So he was a member of the “lucky sperm club”, he should just be happy and shut up. If this was the toughest thing that he has ever faced, he must not be very “battle tested”.
But wait a second. Aren’t we regularly hit over the head with statistics about the poor survival rate of family businesses from one generation to the next? Aren’t successful transitions the exception to the rule? Well, yes, passing a business on to one’s children is not as easy as it looks or sounds.
But when businesses are successfully passed down, the credit almost always goes to the older generation who did such a great job preparing their offspring for the transition. But aren’t there two parts to that equation?
Maybe the reason that successes are few and far between is because there are so many ways for things to go wrong. In fact, the expectation level that exists in some business families alone is enough to make the transfer a long shot from going well. I remember this Forbes story really well because I could identify with it, having grown up in a business family.
As the only son, my father made it quite clear what was expected of me. I do not regret following in his footsteps, but I truly never felt like I had a choice. I don’t know if Steve Forbes felt the same way, but it certainly would not be surprised. The fact that he was seemingly successful in taking over should not have been held against him as it was. But once again, in politics, perception is more important than reality. And sadly, it’s not just in politics either.