Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle clearly demonstrates what happens when a family narrative starts to break. A prominent next-generation family member marries outside the “establishment”. Soon, the values underpinning the whole family are questioned. Relationships fracture between siblings and with parents. The Royal Family’s central story – which has lasted for centuries – suddenly seems very shaky.
Most families don’t have anything like that level of scrutiny or history, but a shared narrative is still the thing that holds them together. A strong story increases the chances of future success. A weak or vague story heightens the risks to wealth and unity.
Families can derive great meaning from their stories. They can forge trust with one another – and across generations – by exploring their shared history. They can find purpose in the present by building on their collective experiences in the past while also clarifying their vision for their future. When they don’t, factions can develop and create great chasms within and across generations.
This situation exists because families tend to get bigger and more complex over time. New members arrive by marriage and birth, and differing opinions and even competing values and priorities can develop. Successful families tend to amass greater wealth and assets over time too. Thus, stewardship of the family’s estate gets more complicated and new structures like family offices and family foundations are created to preserve and manage the family’s assets.
The Family Charter (or “Family Constitution”) is often used as a written guide to help family members navigate this complexity. The Charter acts as a statement of the family’s heritage, culture, hopes, and aspirations for the future. The Charter usually details the following principles for governing the family: