Sibling Rivalry 

The Revolution Begins at Home

Page 6 of 7

There are not a lot of practical implications that come from this kind of research, but there are a few things of a practical nature. Let me first issue a warning by noting what is not practical. For example, I would not advise any business to hire or fire people based on birth order, primarily because the features of personality associated with birth order are very context-dependent. For instance, if one assumes that laterborns are more innovative than firstborns, one would naturally hire laterborns. But one needs to realize that laterborns are more innovative than firstborns only in a "radical" revolutionary sense and not in an "intellectual" or "technological" sense. Second, if one did hire a laterborn instead of a firstborn, it might not be clear that the future holds an impending revolution; it might require moving in a conservative direction. So this hiring strategy would entail another mistake.

This kind of biographical information can be useful--although infrequently so--when one knows exactly what one wants: for example, when presidents appoint justices to the Supreme Court. Presidents typically don't want the best person for the court. Rather, they want the person who will best fulfill their particular vision, and only their particular vision about the future of the court. A study has been done of the birth orders of the 108 justices on the court from the beginning to the present. There is a strong correlation between Republican presidents appointing firstborns and Democrats appointing laterborns, for reasons that are fairly simple. The laterborn justices have been more liberal in their social policies and in their voting records. So if a president is trying to stack the court in any particular direction, then a knowledge of birth order is potentially useful. But in decisions about who to appoint or hire for a job, we would never want to do that. And we could also argue that we probably don't want presidents to do that for the Supreme Court either.

From the perspective of past presidents, incidentally, there have been mistakes in Supreme Court appointments such as Earl Warren, who was a youngest sibling and a former Republican governor of California. One might predict that if someone is going to defect from their previous social ideology after one has put this person on the court, that it is more likely to be a laterborn. So one might question the wisdom of a Republican president appointing a seemingly conservative lastborn justice like Earl Warren. Eisenhower once confessed that the "biggest damn fool thing I ever did" was to appoint Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, because Warren dramatically changed his social views after he was appointed.

You do consulting with family businesses. Tell me what you do.

I have had considerable professional contact with people who are trained in the business world, and who have impeccable credentials. Because of this exposure I have learned that I am capable of doing the following: I can listen to people talk about family business problems, particularly if they are of a personal nature. And if I cannot provide good intuitive advice about how to resolve a given problem in a family business, I know to whom to send people for even better advice. So when I give lectures to family business groups I often offer to do free consulting, in large part because I enjoy doing it. In about half the cases, I have distance from the problem that the people I am trying to help don't have, and often I know of similar problems and solutions in the family business literature, so I am able to provide my own two cents on what to do.

Here is a problem that was presented to me. A man consulted me about a business that he wanted to grow. His elder sibling held half ownership and was nearing retirement and so did not want to take any chances with further investment. The two brothers were at loggerheads. The younger sibling thought the business would go under if they did not do something about it. The older sibling, however, refused to believe him. The first thing that I said to the younger sibling was that he would never be able to convince his elder sibling to change his mind. I could virtually guarantee him that. So the best thing he could do was to get the brother to agree to have an outside consultant come in--a neutral party, so to speak. And he should let the elder brother pick the outside consultant, and let this person come in and evaluate the business in an objective and independent manner. Now, the final advice from this consultant might just sway the elder brother. It was clear to me that this was the way to go, and the younger brother--being too close to the problem himself--had never thought of that. If the two brothers had just continued to debate the matter among themselves, it would have remained a sibling conflict in which neither would give in to the other.

Often I am confronted by issues about succession in family businesses. The boss is running the company, and the person--usually a man--has a bunch of kids in the business, and he is agonizing about which of the kids he should select to take over the business. The boss feels that if he gives control to the eldest, he will alienate his younger children, but if he gives control to one of the younger siblings, he will alienate all the others. The classic way around this dilemma is to hire outside consultants to come in and sit down with each of the candidates. These consultants then interview all of the people in the business, asking what each of the candidates for succession is like, what their particular skills are, and so forth. The consultant then provides feedback to each of the candidates about his or her skills. Finally, the consultants bring all of the candidates together in a room to talk about what each has learned from the companywide feedback he or she has been given. One candidate might say, "I am not the best-liked person, but I am seen as being very good at technical and legal work." And another might say that the employees look to him as a natural leader, but he also now recognizes certain weaknesses in his leadership style.

Through this kind of companywide feedback and open discussion, it generally becomes clear to everyone who the new CEO should be. Furthermore, it is not a solution imposed by the parents, and it is not imposed by the outside consulting firm either. Such consultants merely facilitate a flow of information that makes public what has previously been private. Almost always, there is a consensus as to who should actually take over, which gets around the problem of Mom or Dad dictating the business succession and destroying the family in the process.

One final question. As we experience less material deprivation, in the West at least, could it be that sibling competition is decreasing, so that birth-order niches are less powerful an influence on personality?

It could be. We don't actually know if these effects are smaller today than they once were. This issue is tricky, because radical revolutions that seem to bring out many of these differences have become less and less frequent. It would appear that Western society has gone through most of the really major ones, and there are now no big revolutions left. We've moved the Earth from the center of the universe, and we've moved man from the center of creation. The big conceptual revolutions appear to be over, leaving us with understanding how substances such as DNA work and other typically technical questions. So we have not had any really good tests of these kinds of birth-order effects--at least those that relate to radicalism--since Freud and psychoanalysis. Major conceptual revolutions just don't come along that often. The last big revolution in science was about plate tectonics and continental drift, and that was mostly a technical transformation, compared, say, with Darwinism.

Still, when I study the personalities of siblings within the family, I have been able to document birth-order effects that are as large as I ever expected to find. It is just that their transference to behavior outside the family appears to be modest in most self-report surveys.

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