King Lear’s Fool: The role of advisors


In his article, King Lear’s Fool—The role of advisors, Dean Fowler encourages collaboration among professionals, but also argues for the individual consultant to gain mastery in an area other than his or her field of origin. Mirroring the continuing micro-specialization of education, vocational training and post-graduate study in society, the field of family enterprise consulting has begun to leave behind its broad or holistic focus on the client engagement. Too often advisors/consultants work in a narrow framework, trying to offer the client technical consulting as an expert. While the technical side of the consulting engagement cannot be diminished, it is wise for the advisor/consultant to study the range of solutions during the client engagement. Drawing from a wealth of professional guidelines and advice, this article argues for collaboration between professionals, as well as unique mastery on the part of the consultant to “do no harm.”

King Lear’s Fool: The role of advisors
By Dean R. Fowler, Ph.D.

Transactional and Relational Consulting:

Service professionals are increasingly dominated by experts—specialists with very deep, but also very narrow knowledge. The explosion of knowledge in the last 50 years reinforces narrow specialization—some would argue it demands specialization. But the path of specialization often blinds the expert to the integrated and holistic needs of the client. The limitations of expert specialization are perhaps most often pointed out in the medical profession where holistic medicine is becoming more popular, and where medical schools are recognizing the need to treat the whole person, and not just the disease. Other professions such as law, accounting, and financial planning face similar challenges. While some service professionals are recognizing the importance of a more holistic approach, more often than not, they are carrying out technical consulting as experts.

Jay Hughes in his book Family Wealth: Keeping it in the Family (2004) challenges the service professions—especially lawyers—to return to their classical roots by providing service to the whole person, in fact the entire family, rather than being experts who carry out specialized transactions. In an article published in 2005 (available here), he expands on and clarifies his perspective by clearly articulating the role of what he terms the “personne de confiance”.

While I affirm and admire Jay Hughes’ work and his wise counsel on the role of the confidant and mentor, I believe the evolutionary transition from a transactional expert to a confidant in the service of families-in-business and families of wealth has challenges that demand mastery and wisdom of core principles. Furthermore, from my perspective these transitional challenges are different for the quantitative (e.g. law and accounting) and the qualitative disciplines.

Mastery and Wisdom for the Transactional Experts

When those who have achieved expert status in their own discipline move into the role with clients as the confidant, they need to first master several important core principles in order to “do no harm” and subordinate themselves to this higher calling of service:

  1. Empathic or Active Listening: Confidants must listen to understand, rather than to be understood. (Stephen Covey). The ability to listen intentionally and actively is critical to really understanding the client from his or her own perspective. (Carl Rogers)
  2. Countertransference: In a relationship with a client the confidant may have either negative or positive emotional feelings toward the client. The displacement of the confidant’s own feelings onto the client is often rooted in the unresolved emotional issues of the confidant. (Sigmund Freud)
  3. Ego defense mechanisms: When a person is challenged or is struggling with a decision which takes emotional courage, he or she will unconsciously distort or ignore reality to avoid change and protect the status quo. These defense mechanisms undermine the self-actualization process of the individual. (Anna Freud)
  4. Induction: From the perspective of family systems, the confidant may be pulled (inducted) into the rigid or occurring patterns of the family and easily become co-opted into the very system dynamics which need to change. ( Salvador Minuchin)
  5. Triangulation: To deal with anxiety and conflict in a relationship, the two parties will shift the focus to a third party to reduce the anxiety. However, this strategy does not resolve the underlying issues. The confidant is often the party who is triangulated. (Murray Bowen)
  6. Group Dynamics: Confidants must facilitate family meetings as well as meetings of other advisors and understand the common stages that emerge through this process. (Bruce Tuckman)

These principles require mastery through experience and mentoring. To serve in the role of the confidant, professional advisors need to have a depth of personal maturity—an in-depth emotional grasp of their own self—in order to “do no harm” and avoid falling into the common traps of service to others. To gain this mastery, there are four possible paths to follow:

  1. Become truly multidisciplinary through the completion of a clinical degree in counseling and then gain the necessary 10,000 hours of experience for mastery. (Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell argues that mastery requires 10,000 hours of practice.) One of my colleagues has both a masters of divinity degree and a law degree, while another has her CPA as well as a degree in counseling.
  2. Be engaged with a qualified licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist to examine and explore your own inner emotional issues and unresolved emotional conflicts:“Know thy self.” Regular in-depth exploration with a trained therapist will help you resolve the unresolved emotional issues from your past and identify how your own issues are projected onto your clients.
  3. Work with a qualified licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist to provide “supervision” of your own client cases. When working with a client or client family system, discuss with the supervising therapist how you are inducted into this family and their own systemic issues.
  4. Collaborate on your cases with a licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Be the quarterback of a team of experts to serve the broad-based needs of your client. When you are holding family meetings in particular make sure you have a competent “relational” expert on your team.

Mastery and Wisdom for the Relational Disciplines:

To move into the role of confidant to families-in-business and families of wealth, clinically trained psychologists and therapists face a different set of challenges. To serve these clients, the relational disciplines need to master an interdisciplinary knowledge of the key technical issues critical to the world in which these clients live, not to become experts who can carry out technical transactions, but rather to be able to “speak” and “live” in the complexity of the world of business and wealth.

Interdisciplinary fluency requires mastery through experience and mentoring. In particular several technical areas are critical for the confidant to understand to serve as confidant:

  1. Governance: boards and shareholders agreements.
  2. Estate planning: the impact of federal and state laws on estate planning decisions.
  3. Trusts: the roles of trustees and beneficiaries.
  4. Philanthropy: alternative structures for charitable giving.
  5. Corporate planning: strategic business planning and critical operational issues.
  6. Family employment and participation guidelines: the development and preparation of the next generation as responsible owners and managers.
  7. Financial education and competency: the management of family wealth.

Besides mastery of these technical issues, experienced therapists and psychologists should have a depth of personal maturity through their training and regular supervision; that is, an in depth emotional grasp of their own self in order to “do no harm.” Interdisciplinary fluency is critical so that from a technical perspective the psychological advice provided does not have unknown, impractical or unfounded implications. To gain interdisciplinary fluency, there are four possible paths to follow:

  1. Become truly multidisciplinary through the completion of a professional degree in law, accounting, or business and then gain the necessary 10,000 hours of experience for mastery.
  2. Participate in a regular interdisciplinary study group to learn the underlying principles of other disciplines as they serve family business and families of wealth. I participated in such a group on a monthly basis for ten years.
  3. Develop relationships with technical experts who will provide mentoring on technical issues. The transactional professional members of the study group I founded were always more than willing to take the time to explain to me the technical issues, such as the legal ramifications and accounting implications related to a family case.
  4. Collaborate on your cases with technical experts. Be the quarterback of a team of experts to serve the broad based needs of your client.


Of course, mastery and wisdom for both transactional and relational experts in all of these diverse areas of “interdisciplinary fluency” as well as the core principles to “do no harm” are rarely found in one individual. For most of us, we need to work effectively as part of a collaborative team in order to be the “personne de confiance.” As the confidant we need to first and foremost serve the client and as Jay Hughes so eloquently says: “learn to lead from behind.”

About the Contributor

Dean Fowler photoFor the past 30 years Dean R. Fowler, Ph.D. he has served as an advisor to families-in-business specializing in the emotional dynamics of intergenerational transitions. His book Love, Power and Money: Family Business Between Generations addresses the broad-based interdisciplinary issues facing families-in-business. His Comprehensive Family Roadmaps™ provide an approach to assess the broad interdisciplinary issues facing a family client in twelve critical success factors. He is a member of the Milwaukee Estate Planning Forum, LTD. Dean is a Fellow of the Family Firm Institute (FFI) and is one of only thirteen recipients of the FFI Interdisciplinary Achievement Award which recognizes outstanding achievement for the advancement of interdisciplinary services to business families. Dean can be reached at [email protected].

 Coming up next week, guest blogger Boris Matias.