The Thickness of Blood in Family Business – Part 1

The Thickness of Blood in Family Business – PART 1

“Everyone gets it but the CEO.”

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This blog is being posted in three parts. It comes from a single essay. If you would like to go directly to the whole essay, please click here.


In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business.  The terms included are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.

In family business we often stand at crossroads.  In these moments we seek guidance which, broadly speaking, comes from realms of the spiritual and of the empirical.  Here, we focus on the spiritual.

The spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I ask the readers to approach the material openly.

The crux of this essay is examining the old saying, “blood is thicker than water.”  To do so we look at three scriptural texts.  In each text, one of a trio of fluids is turned into another of the trio. The water of the Nile turns into blood, the water at the wedding at Cana turns into wine, and the wine at The Last Supper turns into blood.

This essay’s goal is to open us up in the daily practice of our family business to the possibility of a similar turn in how we see non-family; that beyond our blood relations there are worthy people who we do well to bring into our family business.

Managing those relationships respectfully yields great dividends.

“Well, you know, blood is thicker than water.”

No arguing with that! Even on the physical level, blood has a much higher viscosity than water. (← NOTE) But, that was hardly the point being made when at a recent meeting of family business advisors one among the group put that old saw on the table.

And, hearing that said made my blood, if not thicker, a little bit hotter. It’s not that I argue against the preferential treatment of family members in family business. It’s that I have something personal on the line here, and also, I believe every old saw deserves being both well respected and also well inspected.

Every old saying deserves being both well respected and also well inspected.

My personal issue with the “blood is thicker than water” saying goes to a decision my parents made. Happy newlyweds decided to start a family. Years later, told that could not happen as planned, they decided to adopt. They were in post WWII Germany and found from two separate sources, a boy and a girl to be their children. As miracles go, they then were blessed with another son through the biological path. And, as miracles often lead to more miracles, these five people became a family as close and loving as a family can be. I cannot imagine my life having been better with another configuration of five souls. That, then, is my personal bias. And, in the terminology that I lay out in this essay, my family became an example of a particular miracle; turning water into blood.

In this essay I am creating a terminology by which to illuminate the inclusion of non-family persons in the family business. The terms are blood, water, wine, miracle and blessing.

  • Blood is associated with the physical, genetic bonds among family. This has specificity and tribalism to it.
  • Water, as is the gist of the saying “blood is thicker than water,” identifies those outside the family, not in the tribe. Water describes the universe of all people from among which blood lines divide us out into tribes and families.
  • Wine is a physical agent that brings success, blessing, goodness. Wine is part of rituals including festive meals and weddings. Wine sipping is a physical act by which partakers show to themselves and others their acceptance of family rules and tribal norms. Of particular note around the use of wine is that at Jewish weddings, the sipping of wine activates the union of the couple. In this union, persons related at the water level become blood relatives both physically and spiritually.
  • Miracles as used in this essay are natural events that “take our breath away,” so to speak. They are events that cause us to step out of the box, to see new possibilities in old circumstances.
  • Blessing is both a ritualized act to bolster the good in a person or situation as well as the realization of that good over which we do not have direct control. For example, a parent might lay their hands on their child’s head and bless them that they will be as great as the matriarchs and patriarchs of the community. That child in fact becoming so great would be a blessing actualized in that person. Blessing is not magic but rather it is a process. In this case of parental blessing, the relatively brief moment of ritual blessing should be seen as the culmination of every prior interaction between that parent and child. If daily, the parent berated the child, no momentary ritual would undo all that. Instead, the ritual of blessing is confirmation of all that has been. Or, optimistically, the ritual of blessing might signal a new course in the child-parent relationship.

This spiritual terminology is part of a view as to where we get guidance in deciding what is the right thing to do. In family business we often stand at crossroads. We ask, “Who will be our new CEO?” Or, “How shall we grow our business?” Consciously or not, in these moments we seek guidance. Broadly speaking, this guidance comes from realms, the realms of the spiritual and of the empirical. I stand with a foot in both worlds and hope not to be split in two. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say, “What science and religion should both be teaching us right now is humility and awe, knowing how small we are in the scheme of things, and how dangerous it is to destroy what it took almost infinite time and space to create..”(← NOTE)

It is with humility and awe that I bring to family business spiritual lessons that have enduring value. As I do this, I know the spiritual is fraught with associations that both draw in and repel depending upon who we are. I hope the readers are able to approach the material openly; and I hope so because of the value often expressed by those with whom I work. I have colleagues within my own consulting group who build their work in the empirical realm. We respect each other deeply. The realms, we find, have common ground. We share goals for our clients and we guide clients to their goals using the tools we handle best.

As for well inspecting any old saw, let’s delve into this, “blood is thicker than water.” To do so we will look at three scriptural texts. In each text, one of the trio of fluids is turned into another of the trio. The water of the Nile turns into blood, the water at the wedding at Cana turns into wine, and the wine at The Last Supper turns into blood.

Again, the particular point of this essay is looking at the choice of family vs. non-family persons for roles in the family business.

Family businesses do put family members in key positions for a few very good reasons. First among them is trust. Second is cost. The trust is very much in that we know each other forever and we know where each other lives. There is history and accountability. Cost is, given that we share so much, we are often willing to share some special risk. That risk includes taking less financial reward in exchange for greater job security. And, in a well run family business, that calculation can often reap rewards both in wealth and in security.

But, not always. There are situations where the family business needs a skill not present among the family members. As can happen in these situations, forced fits are tried. Unpleasantness ensues.

At this point, let’s take a biblical journey to provide context for looking at the thickness of blood and water. We here add another fluid so often found in these very same histories, that being wine. Each of these fluids has a role of its own. But our focus here will be on where ancient texts link these fluids; where one of these three fluids is turned into another of the trio.

Why did we learn in Sunday school that water can become blood and water can become wine and wine can become blood? Our teachers were not forcing nonsense on us. They were conveying the history of their faith to us. Often this conveyance came without any clear practical goal for us having this history. It seemed that keeping the history present in the consciousness of the next generation mattered more than if we understood what practical value these stories might hold for us. (NOTE – I use “history” rather than “story” as a sign of respect. Calling scriptural narratives “stories, myths or fables” can take us into party with scholarship that is dismissive of the value or veracity of these texts; and I do this aware that scripture does say of itself that it sometimes speaks in visions, dreams and parables, and that it does so because human nature requires that elements of knowledge are esoteric.)

I liken this to a child learning how to walk. The parents provide helping hands and joyous praise at each step we take. They do not predicate their help and joy on knowing that we will walk to this or that particular place. It is enough that we acquire the “walking skill.” We then will go where we need to go. For sure, they will guide where we do and do not go, “Don’t run into the street.” But, ultimately, the skill and the support for our attaining skills are separate from our particular uses of those skills. So it is with spiritual materials and with the skills to use those materials. Having the facility precedes their practical use.

When one of these fluids turns into another of these fluids, this is the stuff of miracles. These texts are miracle stories. And, as happens in this genre, the objects stand for people. Water is the universal human whereas blood is the tribal human. And, wine is the bringer of blessing that elevates us to a higher level. Miracle stories tell of some extraordinary human possibilities. Miracles create options for those extreme moments when the familiar ways are not working well enough. In family business, miracles are when the impasse is passed, graciously.

When asked about miracles, people almost always talk about the birth of their children.

When I’ve asked people about miracles, which is a thing I do, people almost always talk about the birth of their children. There could be nothing more “of this world,” material and amenable to science than baby making but that is where people go. This, even though miracles, by simple definition, are beyond the physical world. ( ← NOTE) We do get some help on this conundrum from the likes of Maimonides ( ← aka Rambam) and Aquinas who say “miracles are not contrary to nature.” They are natural events that direct our thoughts to deeper, spiritual truths. ( ← NOTE, NOTE)

Moses turns water to blood

Hebrew Scriptures. Exodus 7:20-21. “Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. Moses raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood.” ( ← NOTE)

The context for this fluid change from water to blood was punishment for Pharaoh. He had been asked to let his Hebrew slaves go to worship their God for a few days and then they would return. Pharaoh refused. Pharaoh, likely Ramses II, was at this point in the narrative making some of the worst business decisions possible. He was afraid of losing cheap labor so he made their labor more onerous and then ordered that labor killed off by commanding midwives to kill all males at birth. At best, Pharoah’s cruelty was counter-intuitive management.

Now, we give attributions to the fluids in this story and apply them to family business. Pharoah focused on the Hebrews. They were non-family; brought in to do work but not valued like family. They were lesser than Egyptians. In terms of the old saw with which we started this essay, the Hebrews were not Pharoah’s “blood;” they were “water.” Turning the water source Nile into blood was bluntly saying to Pharoah, we’re all in this together. We’re all blood now. As goes down outsider Hebrew, so goes down insider Egyptian.

That is the punchline for the miracle of fluid to fluid in this story. Water turns to blood to say that those we cast as outsiders can in a moment become of us. And, when that happens we share their fate.

The story further illustrates the errors Pharoah makes. Going back to my personal nuclear family story, Pharaoh also had adoption in his family. His own daughter, Batya, went against her father’s decree to kill newborn Hebrew males. Pharaoh’s daughter Batya found in the Nile, in a pitch-lined basket, a baby boy. The text tells us that she knew it was a baby of the Hebrews. Batya ordered her maid, who happened to be Moses’ biological sister, to take the infant to a wetnurse whose wages Batya would pay. And, the nurse chosen is Moses’ biological mother, Yoheved. Upon being weaned, Moses is brought back to Pharaoh’s palace where he is raised to adulthood.

If Pharoah did not know this was going on under his nose, then he was truly an incompetent leader. And, if Pharoah did know this was happening, then he was incompetent but in a different way. He either was blind or too weak to direct those around him to his ways. Or, he was unable to give them their due; to admit that they knew better than him the right thing to do. These elements are among the sparse details as the story is told in scripture.

For the purpose of this essay, these details speak to family business leadership. We certainly would not want to lead as did this Pharoah. He was an incapable commander and he made no use of the skills of those around him. This was to his and their detriment. Perhaps it was ego, perhaps stupidity, but no matter what, it was destructive to Egypt just as it would be to any family business we are running.

That which is different and of less value to you can instantly become you. Be broad enough of vision to see that the unconnected can connect.

This Pharaoh story captures a crucial lesson for those who manage family business. Be aware of all the talents around you and their possible connections to your mission. The entirety of this story’s message is concentrated into the miracle of water turning into blood. It is a highly compacted warning to see that what you treat as water can instantly become blood. That which is different and of less value to you can instantly become you. Beware. Be ready. Be broad enough of vision to see that the unconnected can connect. Pharaoh’s family, by birth and adoption, knew this. He needed to learn that lesson, and so do we, and this water-to-blood miracle story is scripture teaching us that crucial lesson.

This was part one of three parts. It comes from a single essay. If you would like to go directly to the whole essay, please click here.

jonathan magidovitch
About the Author

Jonathan advises family businesses in both the US and Israel. He consults with families in business on goal setting, role development, governance, communication, transition, leadership and culture building.     ( view bio )

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