Succession is a nightmare–and so is ‘Succession.’ Why HBO’s hit show is frighteningly accurate

Shiv (left), Kendall (center) and Roman (right) Roy huddled around a table
Family businesses can be incredibly successful when they work well, but combining the personal with profit can lead to disaster for both the family and business, like in “Succession.” Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Spoiler alert: This article contains specific plot details about events in Season 4 of “Succession.”

For four seasons, HBO’s “Succession” has drawn audiences with the darkly comic yet tragic power struggles, betrayals and squabbling of the Roy family. But for Kimberly Eddleston, the show has hit much closer to home––literally.

The Roys, an ultra-rich Murdoch-esque media family, are, in many ways, deeply despicable. As the Roy siblings––Kendall, Shiv and Roman––have battled it out for their father’s good graces in the hopes of taking over their family’s company, Waystar Royco, they’ve shown little empathy. And a willingness to backstab their loved ones if it means getting a little more power. 

However, even at its most over-the-top moments, the show is a shockingly accurate portrayal of what succession can do to a family business.

Eddleston, a Schulze distinguished professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Northeastern University, has seen plenty of families and businesses fall apart when it comes time to talk about what––or who––comes next. 

headshot of Kimberly Eddleston (left) and Ted Clark (right)
Kimberly Eddleston, Schulze distinguished professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, and Ted Clark, executive director of the Northeastern University Center for Family Business. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University and Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“People have said, ‘There’s no way this happens,’ but from a family business perspective the reason why this show really resonates with people is that there is a lot of truth in it,” Eddleston says. “When it comes to sibling rivalry and wealth and the splitting of wealth, it’s a really easy way for family members and children to keep score. It just explodes.”

For any family business, even if it’s not the size of a global, billion dollar Waystar, succession can be a nightmare. A lot of it has to do with the simple fact that family is involved. These are people who know each other intimately and who may have grudges they’ve been harboring since childhood. 

Whether it’s handing down ownership or leadership, succession is about business and ensuring the ongoing success of the business. But when family is involved, it’s also hard for it not to get personal, and the competing interests between business and family are never more clear than when succession is being discussed.

Ted Clark, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for Family Business, likes to say, “The good news is we’re a family business. The bad news is we’re a family business.” 

“When you watch [family businesses] work well, there’s a lot of great lessons to take from them, and when they’re not working well, there’s even more great lessons to take from them,” Clark says.

The power dynamics that are normally at play in a business are amplified when family is involved. That idea is at the core of “Succession.” 

“If I lose power to you, it’s not just like [any other] company where I can go to another company,” Clark says. “It’s my legacy, my name on the line.”

Eddleston, who teaches a course at Northeastern called “Examining Family Business Through Film,” says there are certain power dynamics within a family business that can make succession a particularly thorny topic. Oftentimes, it starts with the founder. In “Succession,” that’s the tyrannical, foul-mouthed Logan Roy. 

“It’s their baby and their identity, and they often end up feeling entitled to stay in that position of leadership,” Eddleston says. “Because they built it, they’re very nervous about how it would affect their identity if they’re no longer the CEO or the president of the company.”

Another issue that “Succession” captures is the tendency for family businesses to avoid succession planning. Most commonly, families simply want to avoid choosing a successor because it essentially means having to choose a favorite child, a taboo for parents.

“You’re asking a family business person basically to not think with their heart but think with their head,” Eddleston says. “You’re not supposed to say this one’s better, that one’s better. It really goes against the grain and the norm of being a good parent.”

For Logan, he simultaneously wants an heir to the Waystar throne but doesn’t trust his kids to do the job right and refuses to give up power. His refusal to pick a successor leads to a situation where his sudden death in the fourth season leaves the company scrambling and his kids scrapping for any advantage they can find that will vault them into the coveted position of CEO.

According to Eddleston, this situation is more common than you might think.

“The worst thing is to not plan but also for the succession plan not to be communicated,” Eddleston says. “This has happened in many situations, and many times it causes the destruction of the business and the family. … I’ve had friends where their dad announces it on their deathbed, and no one saw it coming. It ends up feeling like a betrayal.”

It’s why Eddleston says a succession plan should be discussed well in advance, over years, and developed collaboratively with every family member able to speak their mind. 

In many ways, “Succession” and the Roys are the most extreme example of how succession can go awry for a family business. Waystar exists at a scale that very few businesses do, trading in billions, not millions, of dollars on a daily basis. It’s why Logan’s death can send shockwaves through the stock market and why children taking over “creates more financial distress,” which Eddleston says often lasts for a few years.

But the familial, financial and political tug of war that’s taken place over the last four seasons of the show is more accurate than most people would like to believe. Clark says that when a family business works, “you can’t beat them.” But when money and family or personal and profit-driven motives collide around succession, there’s always room for conflict.

“When there’s something worth fighting for, there’s something worth fighting over,” Clark says.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.