What is duende?

March 13, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

George Frazier, the former columnist for the Boston Globe, used to write about a quality that few people have and most people desire. He called it duende, which he described as, "... that special force or characteristic that makes someone or something irresistibly attractive. So difficult to define, but when it is there it is unmistakable, inspiring our awe, quickening our memory."

Loosely translated, duende can also mean grace under pressure. Frazier named athletes whom he felt possessed it and those who did not. The athlete who had duende was the athlete who always able to rise to the occasion and perform when the pressure was greatest. We also call that athlete someone who could come through in the "clutch." Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, David Ortiz, Tom Brady, Michael Jordan all have duende. Alex Rodriquez, Tony Romo, Patrick Ewing, Mark Sanchez do not.

So what does duende have to do with family businesses?  It has been my experience that the key to successful family businesses is not just their performance during difficult time. It is also the values system implicit in their culture/family that is the foundation for excellent performance when things get tough. When family businesses run into hard times, financially or otherwise, do they have the capacity to maintain their values while under stress? Are they able to have duende? Can they exhibit grace under pressure?

Bigger than financial challenges are the emotional challenges of succession.  Are family businesses able to hold onto to their values, rise above their own personal issues, remember to do what is best for the team, come through in the clutch, prepare the next generation with grace and aplomb?  

Do you have duende? Do you want to be Michael Jordan, or do you want to be Tony Romo?