Leadership lessons from Yellowstone's Dutton Family

By Bill Rock

After amassing a staggering 10 million viewers in its Season 4 finale, Paramount’s Yellowstone is about to start its much-anticipated fifth season. Yellowstone centers on the Dutton family, the multigenerational owners of one of the largest ranches in America. Like a lot of people, I love watching the show, although I do not find the main characters admirable.

Family business leadership is tougher than many people outside family businesses appreciate, and Yellowstone highlights many of the unique challenges family business leaders face. They must be good stewards of the family history, legacy and values that animate the company while making pivots when necessary to ensure the business thrives in the future. They must honor the company’s heritage but also earn respect themselves. They must balance stewardship with creating and building something themselves.

Developing the next generation of leaders is a major responsibility of a family business CEO. Like many family business leaders, John Dutton, the Yellowstone patriarch, struggles with this for his own children. What opportunities do you give the next generation that will prepare them to lead in the future? And how do you assess whether the development process is successful?

Many family businesses, the Duttons included, ensure the next generation of leaders is mentored by a non-family member. Sometimes this is a formal relationship, sometimes informal. Non-family mentors are invaluable because they can be better positioned to tell you not just what you want to hear, but also what you need to hear. Frequently many family business leaders developed their skillset, and built their confidence, in companies outside the family, as John’s daughter, Beth, did. Some families have formal policies prescribing the length of time working outside the family business or milestones of success, such as the first or second promotion.

While there are certain innate attributes that leaders have, there are also many competencies that can be developed. A key way to develop leaders is by giving them increasingly more accountability in roles with measurable results. These roles are frequently line rather than staff roles, which is what John tries to do with his youngest son, Kayce. Successfully leading a business unit with measurable results can prepare the next generation with the skillset needed to be successful. It can also allow the current leaders to better understand if the next generation is able, and ready, to lead.

Moreover, in many family businesses, there will be some who may not think those running the company deserve to be in their roles. These doubts can come from people outside the business, people inside the business or other family members, including some, like John’s son Jamie, who think they should be the leader. Past measurable success in increasingly larger roles can help alleviate some of these issues.

In this issue of Family Business, we highlight many family business leaders who have done an outstanding job of keeping both the business and the family functioning well. Some went through a planful development and succession process. Others were thrown in the deep end. But for all leaders, a key part of whether they are successful is how they develop the next generation of leaders. John Dutton may measure his own success in these terms.


Audio Sound Duration: 
November/December 2022

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