I was driving through Atlanta yesterday when I noticed a family name I recognized decorating a highway sign. You see things like that in Atlanta and in many small towns (like my hometown of Charleston). A few founding families can define a city.
That’s interesting if you like history, but the relevant part is how the descendants of those founding families should live today. These people – whose last names decorate bridges and buildings and roads – must feel a special pressure to “live up to the family name.” But preserving familial legacy is a pressure almost all of us face at some point.
There are two polar views about family names which you can take in your own life:
- You can live with your family name in mind, intent on preserving it and making it better. Follow in the footsteps of the great men and women who came before you and do things that honor their positive legacy for the world.
- You can live free of the burden of your family name. Be an individual, take pride in your own accomplishments, and don’t be ruled by the actions of others.
I put those opposing views in a charitable light. Put negatively, you can:
- Live in the shadow of your family name.
- Abandon your family’s legacy.
But what if there’s a third way? In polarizing situations like these, it can be helpful to think of a problem in terms of something else.
Think about your “family name” the same way you might think about a company’s brand. They serve about the same function: distinguishing the company/family and earning trust and credibility from others.
So if the family name is a brand, each new generation is like the new CEO of the company.
On one hand, if you’re CEO, it is a tremendously powerful thing to have a great brand handed down to you. You inherit the trust, good feeling, opportunities, and momentum generated by your predecessors. You can do a lot of good with that.
On the other hand, inheriting an old and prestigious brand is like being left in charge of a massive freighter moving at a fast clip through iceberg-infested waters. Once you touch the steering wheel, you’re in charge of a big and difficult-to-maneuver force. Maintaining a brand can be really difficult. You always have to be vigilant about not violating the outer world’s expectations. You may feel that you have little room for flexibility or innovation.
Each new CEO has three options for responding to the legacy or brand he/she inherits:
- Maintain the brand: you can imitate your predecessors to a tee. After all, what made your brand/family name great should keep it great, right?
- Abandon the brand: you can rebel against the limitations of your brand/family name and make a radical shift that damages or dilutes the brand.
- Transform the brand: you can take the best of what made the brand and company strong and use that force to pivot to something better and new, while still maintaining the best of the past.
I suggest option 3.
Taking a brand/company in a new or refreshed direction (while still moving in the same spirit of the old) may be the best thing for a company to do, rather than stagnating in a repetition of what worked before.
Steve Jobs, who in his second tenure at Apple inherited a desktop computer company, turned Apple into a company that touched (as Walter Isaacson noted) “music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.” Jobs did not maintain the brand or abandon it. He transformed it by following the internal logic of what was already there. He used Apple’s excellence in user-friendly computer design to make all kinds of user-friendly devices. The Apple brand is stronger, not weaker, as a result.
When it comes to family names (yes, we’re back to that), you can do the same. Use the strength which your family’s positive legacy can give you, but don’t repeat the same patterns. Leave your own legacy. Grow and expand the impact of your family’s “brand” on the world by doing something new, in the same spirit.
* You have ZERO obligation to preserve your family name. Do it if you like it. Don’t if it’s not worth preserving.