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Escape and Evasion, As You Know It, Is Not The Answer

“Planning does not deal with future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.”
– Peter Drucker

Nothing trips up families like avoidance. Avoiding relatives we don’t like, avoiding decisions we find daunting, avoiding conversations we expect will be unpleasant, avoiding consequences we view as troublesome – all this we do in the name of our own short-term comfort. Yet avoidance does not work. Its tactical embodiments – escape and evasion – simply distract the family from reality. Avoidance is not a strategy. Nor are escape and evasion, as popularly practiced, real tactics for solving family problems.

My uncle, on the other hand, knew about the real meaning of escape and evasion. He flew for the United States Air Force in World War II. A fighter pilot, his job was to take off from England, fly across the English Channel into German air space, bomb the designated target, and return unscathed. He did this 96 times. (If you saw the movie Dunkirk, you have a sense of the one-passenger fighter planes he flew. His were American but of that size.) On his 97th mission, he was shot down well inside Germany. Escaping to a farm manned by a conscripted Polish laborer, he evaded Nazi human-sniffing dogs by wiping nasal spray on the soles of his boots and then criss-crossing his tracks. Even then, he came within a few seconds of being discovered. If not for action by the Polish man, my uncle would have been captured. He certainly would have become a prisoner of war, and he may well have been killed.

After the war, my uncle was inducted into the Escape and Evasion Society, an elite group of Air Force personnel who had escaped the enemy. The Society, which still exists, recognizes both American service people and those who help them.

Membership in the Escape and Evasion Society is considered a high honor. This does not mean, however, that escape and evasion outside the setting of warfare, in an enterprise-owning family, is a good idea.  For such a family, escape and evasion is not the answer, not an honor. It is, instead, the path to deterioration and unhappiness.

How so?  When confronted with reality, many families mistakenly believe they really can escape and evade. The examples are vast. Here’s a quick sampling of just a few:

  • Father, a second-generation owner, keeps postponing the need to retitle memberships in an LLC that owns substantial commercial real estate. He sees retitling to family trusts, which already exist, as an intrusive technicality.
  • Third-generation owners of a large stock portfolio evade making decisions together about it.  Having been treated condescendingly as passive owners whey they were younger, and now angry as a result, they opt to divide the portfolio and invest separately. They assume, incorrectly, that splitting up their financial capital will restore the human capital they forfeit by the split-up.
  • Parents, having started a successful distribution business, try to escape the consequences of making their daughter president. Daughter has all the day-to-day responsibility and no ultimate control. Meanwhile, the parents try to escape the father’s poor health by moving to another climate. The parents evade questions about succession, insisting their lawyers have prepared all the pertinent documents.
  • Second-generation owners of a successful manufacturer create series of trusts for their adult children and escape explaining why. The children, who also own stock outright, are left to set up their own trusts that do not tie into the trusts of which they are beneficiaries.
  • Second-generation owner, a widower, stands by, in evasion mode, as his young son escapes guidance from senior management and input from siblings about the business’s decline. Having transferred his nonvoting shares to a trust of which the son is sole trustee and all children are beneficiaries, the father dies, and the business continues to lose altitude.

Am I exaggerating the comparison with my uncle to make a flimsy point? No. Escape and evasion, as popularly practiced in families, happens over and over again, and always with the same result: failure. What then may we draw from the comparison?

First, escape and evasion works only when the person honestly confronts the danger ahead.  Fearing danger is not the same as apprehending it, and apprehending it is different than confronting it. Not acting in response to identified problems does not constitute real or praiseworthy action. It’s simply ineffective reaction. For my uncle, planning with the spray, laying out the criss-cross, and possessing a good sense of direction likely saved his life. For the enterprise-owning family, treating reality on its own terms can save the family’s life – but only if the owners decide together to do so. This requires realism. 

Second, as the Drucker comment says, planning does not concern decisions you will need to make many years from now. Putting off decisions is not, by itself, a plan. Rather, planning concerns decisions you need to make now that will affect your future for many years – even the future you do not envision. After the Air Force my uncle got married, moved to Florida, raised five children, and, in retirement, became something of a poet and a writer of short stories. At the moment he was extricating himself from his doomed plane, he certainly had no idea how his life would turn out. But he acted based on the present, so he could have a future. And he did so with optimism that the resources available to him at that moment would help him.  

Today, as is my uncle’s time, there is no penalty for families making decisions as optimistic realists.