There’s (Almost) No Such Thing As “Founder’s Syndrome”

Ways to talk about organizational leadership challenges without blaming the people who got it off the ground

We’ve all heard the phrase when there’s trouble in a nonprofit: “Founder’s Syndrome.” It means, in essence: the organization’s difficulty can be laid at the feet of the person whose creative energy got things going in the first place.

I have philosophical and emotional objections to this phrase. For starters, the implication is that there’s a disease that you should avoid at all costs. If you’re unfortunate enough to come down with it, your only way out might be a costly medical procedure.

It’s a lazy idea that suggests there is a single continuum of causes and consequences when a person founds a nonprofit and something goes awry years later. It suggests that it’s inevitable that charismatic and dynamic founders are due to fail, and for the same reasons every time.

There is a pattern of common indicators for nonprofits that gets shoveled into the catchall description of “Founder’s Syndrome.” A tendency not to let go or delegate in making decisions. Carrying around too much knowledge in one person’s head without sharing or letting others into the process of how things are run.

But these aren’t necessarily things that happen only when there’s a single founder. It’s useful here to look at the nonprofit lifecycle and how it tends to play out, to one degree or another, within organizations. There are a few common stages:

  • Early Incubation. This is the startup phase, when things are lean and scrappy. The founder leads a group that is trying stuff, and throwing things at the wall to see what will stick.
  • Growth. The organization has figured stuff out, and it’s working. Systems are being built quickly, and the natural focus is on creating the programs for sustaining activities—often at the expense of concrete tools such as a fundraising database, or systems of written policies and procedures. The founder and core group are moving fast. It feels like good stuff.
  • Maturity. Things are still working. There are enough resources to bring in specialists in development and finances. With good development, there’s an engaged and supportive board of directors.
  • Something Goes Wrong. The financial environment changes, or a major funder drops out after a multi-year commitment. The service or artistic mission seems to drift for a year or two. Fundraising efforts level off, or see diminishing returns. There’s a sense of internal stagnation, and eyes begin to turn to the leader who has always been in charge and responsible for the big decisions.

These are the kinds of leadership challenges that every nonprofit faces, whether they’re led by a founder or by someone who came to the organization years or decades after it started. The key here is to look at what can be done in terms of leadership and culture, rather than throwing up our hands and declaring the patient infected with an unavoidable disease.

When an organization faces challenges, it’s common for a culture to develop in which it’s hard to tell truth to power. It’s not as though there’s ill intent at work—strong, directive-focused leaders are not always the easiest people to work for. They plow ahead and have strong wills. It’s what’s always worked for them in the past.

But that response to changing circumstances is by no means exclusive to founders. Change is difficult for all of us. Yes, it can be especially difficult for founders or other leaders who feel strong ownership of the organization’s work. Whoever the leader, at this point, what’s needed is to dig down with a truthful eye into what’s working and what’s not—rather than pointing at a single human as the cause of all setbacks.

What’s needed here is identifying the healthiest, most productive conversations to have internally. Looking at the lifecycle of the organization is very useful—it normalizes the crisis and puts it into a context where it’s not personal. It enables leadership to say, This is what happens when you get to this stage or situation. What’s the right leadership for us now?

Maybe it’s time to develop written policies. It could be time for an audit or external evaluation. It’s often the time to consider the functioning and oversight of the Board—and to consciously realize that the board’s loyalties should be to the entire organization and not to a senior leader or founder. This is usually an opportunity to reshape the leadership structure, or to more clearly define the concrete responsibilities – and authority – for each position.

There’s really no such thing as “Founder’s Syndrome,” at least in terms of an inevitable diagnosis for those who have built an organization from scratch. It might be more accurate to call it “Leadership Evolution Syndrome,” which is something that can strike any of us at any time—and for which there are plenty of treatments available.

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