Megan Helzner

Megan Helzner

Senior Manager

Tom Bonner

Tom Bonner


Family governance is an intricate tapestry, especially during generational or leadership transitions. The allure of familiar characteristics within the family can often influence leadership choices. We can all imagine scenarios where a patriarch or matriarch is looking for a next-generation successor or a leader for their family governance system and seeks their “carbon copy,” and with good reason.

However, pursuing the familiar is not always a recipe for success. Sian Beilock, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and President of Dartmouth College, states that it is natural that “…when under pressure, we often desire what is familiar…As it happens, flocking to the familiar under pressure can backfire, creating more stress than we had in the first place.” But, in transitional moments, there are many good reasons to consider an “outlier” candidate.

We define an outlier, in our context, as a family member deviating from the “norm” who may be an “unlikely” candidate for leadership for one or more reasons. This person may live far away from the rest of the family, attend a school that the rest of the family has not, ascribe to a different political belief than others do, have very different feelings about wealth from others, etc. We define an outlier leader as the right leader activated within the family governance system.

In instances of profound turbulence or change, families might consider what someone vastly different could bring to the table, creating an appetite for outlier leadership. For example, a brilliant married-in family member could bring just the right mix of professional prowess with none of the “baggage” that lineal family members carry. That they are an outsider is an asset—some different thinking is just what we need!

Figure 1: Our view is that the right “outlier”–whose leadership can be accepted or taken in by the group–should be somewhere in the middle 95.4% (dark blue and turquoise). An outlier in that far ~5% might be too far in one direction or another to be accepted.

Just as often, if not more often, families imagine—and quickly settle on—someone who is, in effect, “the junior.” Similar training (e.g., Harvard ’71 and Harvard ’01), similar life path (e.g., married with children), or similar outward appearance (e.g., conservative dresser, same gender). That they are an insider carries great weight—we can envision our next 50 years, continuing our strong values with this leader at the helm!

We at CFAR believe that more attention should be paid to the power and potential of outlier leaders. These individuals are inside enough to “get it” and be taken seriously, but outside enough to bring fresh perspectives and who have a savvy for introducing those points of view. For the leaders themselves, finding the right balance between “outside” and “inside” is delicate and something to be attuned to on an ongoing basis.

For the family (and for their advisors), finding the right mix between gravitating toward familiarity and embracing differences is a risk-laden challenge. While the allure of the familiar makes continuity of the enterprise “as we know it” more likely, exploring differences opens doors to new possibilities, as experts in talent search increasingly advocate.

Outlier leaders may not fit the mold but can carry the culture. They may represent the next generation while respecting what has come before them. And they bring a unique perspective but also respect prevailing viewpoints. We observe that outlier leaders are determined and persistent—after all, it takes extra energy to be an outlier and have the desire to be an insider—but they are also susceptible to burnout.

Here are four “conditions for success” we have identified alongside outlier leaders with whom we have worked. We hope that they are useful to you:

  • Calculated risk-taking: An outlier leader should pursue their vision for impact only when informed analysis indicates conditions are right for success
  • Support systems: Family members, advisors like CFAR, and mentors are key to the outsider leader’s success
  • Strong coalitions: An outlier leader should be inside enough to be reliably informed, outside enough to see different paths, empathetic enough to hear/learn from different views
  • Timing: Outlier leaders may be more or less welcome at different times in a family enterprise’s lifecycle

Naturally and wisely, difference can provoke apprehension in a group considering an uncertain future (and what future isn’t uncertain?). Valid concerns about straying from core values or steering long-held strategy off course can overshadow outlier leaders’ potential or encourage incumbents to seek more traditional candidates. But under the right circumstances and with the right leader, outliers can cultivate profound transformation, ushering in new thinking and a new leadership approach. Advocating for and supporting outlier leaders may not always be easy, but they represent an opportunity to reimagine the future of family enterprises. Lastly, remember that leadership is not solely a role to be chosen for, but a frame of mind and way of behaving that anyone in a system can adopt. For outliers, this means that you can’t wait around for someone to pass you the reigns—stand in leadership now to begin creating the change you want to see.