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The Power of Why

Mission statements can play a critical role in a family’s success.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—my sophomore year in college—a professor offered a course called “Shakespeare and Modernity.” When asked what the reading list would be, he replied, rather offhandedly, “a little Shakespeare and a little Nietzsche.”

Next semester he offered a course called “Shakespeare and Antiquity.” I suspect you won’t believe me, but again he said the reading list would be a little Shakespeare and a little Nietzsche. I lost a C note when I bet my roommate that, before we graduated, the guy would teach a course called “Antiquity and Modernity,” the reading list for which would be a little Shakespeare and a little Nietzsche. The teacher took a visiting professorship before we graduated—otherwise, I’m certain I’d be a hundred dollars richer today. I didn’t take any of those courses, and I’ve never read Nietzsche, but the other day I came across something he wrote that really struck me: “If one has a why in life, one can endure any how.”


A Shared Why

If you asked me to identify the one thing that successful families have that others don’t, I’d say they have a shared why in life. They have a common purpose, and they all know they do; they understand that they share a sense of where they’re going together and what they’re trying to accomplish as a family. They’ve got a deep sense of what it’s all for. And because they do, they can endure just about anything, as Nietzsche said.

Some families have a natural sense of why; it develops organically over time, without conscious thought or effort. It’s simply in their genes. Other families have to work at it; they have to tease it out; they have to work to find it. The best process I’ve found for families who need to find their why in life and achieve alignment around it is to work together as a family to create a family mission statement.


Family Mission Statement

A family mission statement is a family’s uniquely personalized statement of their why. While every family’s mission statement is different, mission statements generally should express: the family’s vision of who they are, how they’re different from other families and what they seek to perpetuate; their sense of purpose and meaning; their understanding of their family history and traditions; and their expression of the legacy they wish to pass on to future generations.

The process of creating a family mission statement can be one of the most intensely unifying and powerful experiences in the life of the family. That assertion often engenders a fair amount of skepticism. After all, how can it be that a mere piece of paper—and one that’s not even a binding legal document at that—can be so powerful a force? Of course, the answer is that its force and impact derives not from the mission statement itself—as strong and powerful as it may be—but from the process of creating and revisiting it on a regular basis. When done well, the process of creating the family mission statement demands that family members participate meaningfully so that the statement that emerges is the product of significant reflection, discussion and debate. While no one family member might find the final statement perfect, the end product should be one that all family members endorse. The process of working together to articulate a statement that belongs to everyone collectively and that reflects the family’s collective judgments and decisions can be extraordinarily powerful.


Four Critical Questions

But the families that stop at this point don’t get the real benefits of a family mission statement: Even a perfectly crafted mission statement, if relegated to a desk drawer, will never have the impact it could. The families who ultimately succeed in weaving the family mission statement into the fabric of their life together as a family are the families who return to it periodically and ask themselves four critical questions:

  • Do we still believe it? Does our family mission statement still accurately reflect our values as a family?
  • If not, what do we have to do to change it so that it will be accurate again?
  • If it still is an accurate expression of our values, vision and mission in life, have we lived our lives in accordance with it?
  • And if not, what do we need to do to get back on track?

If families answer those questions honestly, the answer to the third question almost always will be “no, we haven’t.” That’s because we’re often off track— we do things we wish we hadn’t done, say things we wish we hadn’t said. The essence of being human is getting it wrong. We’re probably off track more often than we’re on course. And if that’s right, then the fourth question becomes the most important one: We committed to one another that this is our mission; we’ve just acknowledged that we’ve veered off course; now, what do we have to do to get back on track?


Getting Back on Track

Because the reality is that all families—happy and unhappy, healthy and dysfunctional—get it wrong from time to time. The most profound difference between successful and unsuccessful families isn’t that the successful ones don’t get it wrong; it’s that the successful ones continually find a way to try again, to get back on track. For some families, the way they get back on track is by recommitting to their family mission statement. Where the family mission statement plays that central role in a family, it becomes the ultimate expression of their why in life and functions as their destination (where are we going together in life as a family?), their flight plan (how are we going to get there?) and their compass (if we’re off path, what do we need to do to get back on track?).


Glenn Kurlander is Managing Director, Head of Family Governance and Wealth Education at Morgan Stanley

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