Inevitably, every family business faces heart-wrenching, impossible choices. Some common examples are choosing between the needs of the business and the needs of the family, choosing between shareholder liquidity and shareholder investment and choosing between a focus on profitability and a focus on legacy. All these examples present a choice between two “right” answers that appear to be in direct conflict.

In these cases, often called polarities, wise families refuse to choose one option to the exclusion of the other. They recognize that the complexity of the issue at hand won’t be addressed by one solution. Instead, they seek ways to incorporate both options.

Dr. Barry Johnson, in his book Polarity Management, helps clarify this dynamic by differentiating between problems and polarities.

Problems—for example, whether or not to build a new facility, who to hire for an open position, or how much to budget for a new vehicle—can be solved. A choice may be difficult but can—and must—be made.

In contrast, polarities present two apparent opposites that can only be managed, not solved. This occurs because both sides of a polarity are highly desirable and in fact necessary. Choosing one option over another is always a bad idea.

Polarities present an excellent example of the “genius of the and” described by Jim Collins in Good to Great. Collins exhorts us to liberate ourselves from the “tyranny of the or,” saying, “Instead of choosing A OR B, figure out how to have A and B.” Dr. Johnson has defined polarities as “mutually inclusive opposites in the both/and category. Polarities are interdependent pairs, apparent opposites that, in fact, need each other.” Dr. Johnson also points out the importance of remembering that there is a time and a place for both kinds of thinking – “both/and thinking” AND “either/or” thinking. In fact, these two approaches are a paradox in themselves!

Families in business together encounter this dynamic everywhere they turn, and their ability to harness the power of polarities is essential to their success.

Some examples of common family business polarities:


Polarities often feel wrenching because there is no one “right” choice. No selection is clearly, indubitably, and unmistakably superior. However, as you seek to tap the power of both options, the feeling of frustration is replaced by a wonderful sense of possibility. Now, rather than being limited to one “correct” choice, you are free to select both “correct” choices. When tapped as an interdependent pair, polarities are sources of energy and opportunity. Though neither is superior to the other, together they provide a superior response.

We often experience recurring polarities as being frustrating or even dangerous. When the family is divided in its response, it can feel as though there is a serious threat to family unity and business continuity. But what if we took a completely different approach to these tricky issues? Rather than seeking to solve them with one right answer, we could shift our framework and, instead, seek to manage them as naturally occurring tensions that have no solution. And, further, rather than feeling frustrated and threatened by these tensions, we could appreciate them as powerful sources of exceptional performance and quality of life. In fact, these polarities are gifts, and learning to manage them is central to the development of healthy families, sound businesses, and vital communities.

Many business-owning families intuitively manage polarities with great skill. But other families often feel inadequate when faced with stubborn, recurring dilemmas that can’t be neatly resolved. These families often wonder, “Why aren’t we strong or smart enough to make a decision?” Or they worry about the threat represented by a lack of family agreement. However, once they understand these issues as dynamics to be managed rather than problems to be solved, they can feel a tremendous sense of relief. They acknowledge the necessity to find a way to do both over time. For example, they will need to act in response to short-term needs AND consider long-term implications. They will need to make decisions based upon emotion AND reason. They will serve the needs of the family AND of the business. By refusing to choose between two necessary and desirable options, these families are demonstrating their wisdom and understanding.

The research is clear. Organizations that manage polarities well outperform those that don’t. Leaders who manage polarities well are more effective than those who don’t. It is also our experience that the most effective, harmonious families are those that successfully tap the power of both elements of naturally occurring polarities.

For further reading:

  1. Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.  The “Genius of the And” is a key variable in this book and is identified as a key characteristic of leaders moving companies from Good to Great. There are 10 paradoxes identified as central to becoming a level 5 leader.
  2. Fletcher, Jerry and Kelle Olwyler. Paradoxical Thinking: How to Profit From Your Contradictions. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1997.  After more than 15 years of studying thousands of detailed examples of people performing at their best, Fletcher and Olwyler have concluded that individuals are always paradoxical when performing optimally and that each person has a particular combination of contradictory and paradoxical (polarity) qualities that work together to produce that person’s best work. 
  3. Johnson, Barry. Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. Amherst: HRD Press, 1994.  Johnson shares a number of case examples in which the shift from seeing an issue as a problem to solve to managing it as a polarity added real value for individual leaders and for organizations.