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Inception’s Hidden Family Business Lessons

family business leadership transition Jun 17, 2024

- by Sophie Pinkoski

Thanks to this past summer’s Barbenheimer box office phenomenon, director Christopher Nolan is back in the zeitgeist. Oppenheimer may be his latest hit, but another Cillian Murphy-featured film in his oeuvre can tell us a great deal about navigating a family business. Nolan’s 2010 film, Inception follows a team of thieves who specialize in extracting information from people’s dreams. While this premise is a complex, layered psychological heist, at the heart of it is the succession of a family business at the end of its founder’s life. Cillian Murphy’s character, Fisher, grapples with the difficult decisions he must make as he prepares for his father’s death, namely the fate of his family’s empire, Fisher-Morrow. His main struggle is deciding whether to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming the next CEO of the company. Meanwhile, Fisher-Morrow's biggest competition takes advantage of the company’s precarious position. They hire Leonardo DiCaprio’s team to convince Fisher to dissolve the company to prevent a monopoly. The trick is to make Fisher believe the dissolution of his family company was genuinely his idea all along. 

Cillian Murphy’s character arc offers insights into the transition process for a family business. Here is what Inception can tell us about family business transition: 

Prepare a succession plan well in advance–– Fisher’s fractured relationship with his father means they haven’t communicated in several years, leaving him utterly in the dark as to his father’s intentions for the family business. Early in the film when it’s recommended that he invoke a power of attorney, he responds with a sense of panic. He has no awareness of any formal plans in place for either the end of his father’s life or the future of the business itself.

Succession planning for family businesses is something that should begin as early as possible.

Starting early gives plenty of time to train, mentor, and develop the successor’s leadership skills and familiarize them with their responsibilities. The unpredictability of the business landscape means anything could happen before a formal transition is put in place. Prepare as many contingency plans as possible to address any potential crisis. This will ultimately prevent the family from scrambling like Fisher did. Despite the eminence of his father’s death, he was still left unprepared due to his father’s unwillingness to give up control. This leads to a lack of faith in his son taking over the company, and Fisher’s lack of confidence in his own abilities as a result. Leonardo Dicaprio’s character, Cobb, and his team serve as an unconventional transition team for Fisher. They are there to guide him through the transition process so he can make the best decision for himself and the company. 

Mend and nurture the relationship between generations–– In order to guide Fisher’s thought process, the team chooses to focus on mending the fractured relationship between him and his father. Fisher is convinced his father died disappointed that he never lived up to his expectations. Yet the team manages to settle his anxiety by planting an idea in his head that what his father was truly disappointed in was that his son tried so hard to be something he wasn’t. This allows Fisher to come to terms with his father’s death and move forward.

Intergenerational relationships are crucial for any family business. A positive, supportive relationship gives the next generations the opportunity to grow up with the family business as an integral part of their life.

The older generation can mentor them, show them the ropes, and help develop their inherent talents that can one day benefit the future of the company. 

Allow space for grief in the transition period–– For the purposes of the film’s narrative, Fisher is put in a pressure-cooker situation where he must make decisions as soon as possible following his father’s death. In the real world, the transition process takes time to plan. Despite the ticking clock, Cobb’s team is aware of Fisher’s delicate emotional state in his grief, and they make a point of helping him find closure before he can make such a huge, life-altering decision.

A significant aspect that must be considered in the transition plan is this grieving period.

Regardless of if this comes after a death or simply moving on from something so integral to the family’s life for so long, the stages of grief look different for everyone. Give family members the time and space to process their grief before moving on to the next transition stage. The stages of grief are far from linear, and can manifest at any time, but allowing time to mourn before jumping into a period of immense change allows everyone to process their emotions and eventually wrap their heads around what needs to be done. 

Ensure everyone is involved with the business for the right reasons–– Cobb’s team identifies Fisher’s godfather as a negative influence on the family business. He is considered self-serving and driving the company in the wrong direction to satisfy his own ambitions. The team therefore finds a way to get Fisher out from under his thumb to assert his independence and build his confidence in the decisions he must make as his father’s successor. Family members will each have their own ambitions and intentions in their involvement within the family business.

Everyone has their own skills and talents they bring to the table, and rather than using the business to further their interests, it’s healthier to take those talents to build up the company instead.

When you combine everyone’s skills and interests, you create a stable, aligned team driven by a shared goal. 

Prepare the next generation through meaningful experiences–– At the end of the team’s mission, they create a vault in Fisher’s dreams where he must retrieve his father’s most valued possession that will influence his ultimate decision. Prior to the mission, Fisher is disappointed to find a childhood photo of him and his father, neglected on his father’s bedside. Yet inside the safe, he finds his father’s updated will and the toy Fisher was holding the day the photo was taken. In this way, the team further drives home that Fisher’s father truly did value his relationship with his son. The fond memory the photograph captures in this instance is a perfect example of creating meaningful experiences with new generations so they can associate the family business with positive memories in their life. Picnics, family dinners, and trips are all examples of special events that can be used as fun, memorable learning opportunities for children and grandchildren.

Involving the next generation in conversations about the family business will also help them envision how their skills and interests align with the company’s needs.

Keeping them involved as they grow up maintains their interest and proves that they are a valued part of the business and the family’s legacy. 

By the end of Inception, Fisher is able to make an informed decision about the fate of his family’s business. The choice he makes is one he can be proud of that will also honour his father’s legacy by creating something new for himself. Fisher is ultimately empowered to take his own destiny into his own hands. When every family member is empowered to do the same, they have the freedom to take part in the family’s legacy in a way that is most authentic to them. 

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