A New Look at “Founder’s Syndrome” -- Are Founders Really the Problem?

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Could a strong organizational founder doom a nonprofit organization to serious problems in the long term?  Elizabeth Schmidt explores the question, in the July 8 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly.  Ms. Schmidt discusses a phenomenon frequently discussed in nonprofit literature, and commonly described as “founder’s syndrome.”

A nonprofit’s founder is often an excellent leader and the organization’s most important visionary.  Generally, the founder is the individual most committed to the nonprofit’s mission and purposes.  The organization’s very existence is usually attributable to the founder’s persistence in bringing the organization to life. 

With this force of vision and leadership, however, come significant risks.  Organizations with such strong founders can become overly dependent on these dynamic individuals to the extent that the organization’s identity becomes inextricably intertwined with that of the founder.  The founder’s weaknesses become the organization’s weaknesses.  When the time is right for succession, the nonprofit can struggle in the founder’s absence.

This kind of overdependence and the nonprofit’s failure to provide solid plans for succession are characteristics of an organization with founder’s syndrome.  The phenomenon is problematic to be sure. 

But according to Schmidt, the risk of founder’s syndrome has recently led to sweeping condemnation of founders themselves.  Schmidt looked at nonprofit literature on founder’s syndrome and found that many authors treat founders harshly, some even implying that founders usually have psychological problems.  Schmidt cites one author who wrote, “The world of executives is filled with founding chief executives whose domination, petulance, stubbornness, shortsightedness, and other flaws are routinely overlooked because, well, most of the time they’re right. That doesn’t make their exasperating style or puzzling choices defensible.”

As Schmidt argues, such stereotypes go too far.  It is important for organizations to be aware of the risks of founder’s syndrome, but not go to far as to dismiss the unique strengths and gifts founders bring to the table.  Through their dynamism, innovativeness, and entrepreneurial spirits, founders can be valuable assets to organizations, and not just in the formative phases.

The keys to finding the right balance, as Schmidt indicates, are good corporate governance practices through the board of directors, and the board’s governance of the entity in accord with its mission.  In good boards, active discussion among directors is healthy: push back of dissenting opinions should be allowed and even encouraged.  Authority of the organization must rest ultimately with the board acting as such, and not in and through individual directors, including the founder, if the founder happens to be on the board. 

Such governance practices should lead the board to evaluate the founder’s role in light of the entity’s mission.  Through the grid of the entity’s mission, directors should develop roles that incorporate the founder’s skill set and strengths, while offsetting the founder’s weaknesses through other qualified individuals or systems.

Arbitrarily dismissing founders because of the risk of founder’s syndrome can rob an organization of the very light that gave it life.  As Schmidt writes, “Silencing the person with the original vision is counterproductive…  We need to keep founders with a true and workable vision in place until they have taught the entire organization to think like they do.”  Succession planning is thus also an important element for the organization’s long-term sustainability.