Founder’s Syndrome: Leadership Lost and Found

leadership ngos syndrome
Wednesday, 30 July, 2008 - 07:33

Founder’s Syndrome (FS) is not unique to the nonprofit sector. Diagnosing the ‘syndrome’ is not easy and even more difficult to accept when it exists in your organisation.

Founder’s Syndrome (FS) is not unique to the nonprofit sector. In fact it exists in the business world and many other sectors including sports clubs, professional associations and even in political circles. This syndrome can be identified in a church choir or a multi-billion rand corporation. It is everywhere! Transitional leadership is difficult and fraught with challenges and this is often exacerbated by ‘founders’ who will not let go of what is perceived to be their ‘baby’. Diagnosing the ‘syndrome’ is not easy and even more difficult to accept and address when it exists in your organisation.

Founder’s Syndrome is said to affect founders or leaders who bring the organisation through tough times, such as a startup, near financial collapse, or overseeing a tremendous growth spurt, or mobilisation and lobbying for political change. During these challenging times, founders usually make all of the (mostly reactive) decisions themselves, based on their individualistic viewpoints.

The life cycle of an organisation

The infant

Most nonprofit organisations exist to serve a social need in society; they are so fired-up about the cause that often in the startup phase give little thought to the lack of policies and procedures being in place. Such things come much later. The focus will be on strengthening the projects and programmes. During the startup stage the organisation will be driven by and dependent upon the founder’s energy levels, those who have a strong ownership and an emotional commitment to the vision. The organisation will be small and simple in its way of doing business and operate on a relatively local level – sometimes in a single community or province. Financial security will be limited with no reserve funding; few assets and it more than likely have a single source of income. In many instances the NPO will survive on the generosity of the founding members who personally cover items such as the telephone account and put petrol in the tanks of less well-off board members.  Alternatively, the organisation could be fortunate enough, by efforts of the founders, to be supported through investment philanthropy.

The mature adult

As the organisation evolves it needs to work towards the next level of second and third generation board members, attracting leaders who will be more adept in handling the business. Often such personalities will have different skills and talents to that of the founders. Generally they are not great on new ideas but good at perfecting what others have created. As the operations expand and the day to day functions become more complex and demanding, procedures and processes will need to be in place. A higher level of focus will be placed on sustainability to meet fixed cost and salaries, the need for generating reserves for rainy day funds will be more apparent, and the sources of income will need to be broadened and diversified. The board will recognise a need to secure more assets and perhaps even property. All of this will need plans, management systems and policies. The character of the organisation will need to become more mature.

Although Founder’s Syndrome is mentioned in negative tones we need to acknowledge the positive aspects and qualities. Founders have an entrepreneurial spirit, they are exceptional people, dynamic individuals who are driven by passion and vision. Outsiders will liken them to ‘dynamite’ because they can get any job done and shift the status quo. They are compelling and relentless in nature and will have a knack of attracting others to the cause to achieve their goals. They make the world spin a bit faster and are often a lot of fun to be around. Some are referred to as ‘rainmakers’; people who can influence progress and bring in new ideas and opportunities to their organisation.

It is a fact that they do ignite numerous fuses but it is also true that they can leave a trail of devastation and unhappiness in their wake if other players in the organisation are not proactive and neglect to motivate a course of action for succession and instill a culture towards professional development.

What is Founder’s Syndrome?

According to Carter McNamara, an international leadership and management specialist, Founder's Syndrome occurs “when an organisation operates according to the personality of the chief executive or board, rather than according to its overall mission”. He suggests that it is imperative to learn about traits of founders and work towards leadership practices to sustain and enhance the changing nonprofit. 

Some traits and behaviours include the following;

  • Making reactive, crisis-driven decisions with little input from others.
  • Reacting to most problems with the lament "if only I had more money or if only I had more resources."
  • If the founder is the Chairperson s/he will change the vision every few years in an attempt to portray organisational renewal or to become indispensable once more.
  • They just stay in charge/control far too long – two terms of office of three years each is maximum.
  • They will not have time for strategic planning sessions and see such gatherings as nothing more than talk-shops.
  • If the founder is also the executive director they might attend mostly to fundraising and generating new ideas.
  • Often they will hand-pick their Board members and staff as they seek people who will be loyal to themselves, rather than working for the mission.
  • They will recruit Board members through their network efforts and not through interest in the objectives of the organisation.
  • They will count on whoever seems most loyal and accessible, and motivate by fear and guilt, often without realising it and will often bend a few ears on the telephone before a board meeting for support on a particular issue.
  • They will only hold occasional staff meetings to report crises and shed blame.
  • They will work to remove Board members who disagree with their views.
  • They will have a very difficult time letting go of the strategies that worked to quickly grow the organisation or service, despite evidence that these are no longer relevant.
    Ultimately, Founder’s Syndrome sets in because the organisation becomes dependent, not on the systems and structures of the organisation, but on the unique style of the leader - whether the leader is consistently decisive or consistently indecisive. It can eventually lead to the demise of the organisation and damage its reputation.

How can we avoid it?

McNamara points out some important traits to nurture. He states that leaders of lasting, well-developed organisations have experienced numerous changes, and managed to develop their organisations and themselves along the way. These founders will be keen to learn new management styles and mentor new people for smooth succession and encourage new ways of getting results and achieving success.

However, it is vital that NPO’s continue to prioritise meeting the needs of their clients/beneficiaries. To focus only on the development of new leaders and neglect or stop delivery of programmes while the new shoes change feet is irresponsible. Life-cycle change should be from entrepreneurial, sometimes spontaneous growth to planned and managed development. This requires change in the leadership style to what has become customary of the founders.

Developed leaders will:

  • Live the vision (for it)
  • Appreciate strategic plans and budgets as guidelines, and realise these ultimately make their organisations more responsive to the needs of their clients/beneficiaries.
  • Make proactive decisions based on mission and affordability.
  • Make staffing decisions based on responsibilities, training, and capabilities.
  • Value Board and staff members for their strong expertise and feedback.
  • Sustain strong credibility among clients, partners and service providers.

If you are a founder feeling bruised and unappreciated, take heart, many others have gone before you and been daring and bold enough to step back and let the next generation take guardianship of what is their ‘baby’. Consider Bill Gates who has just retired from Microsoft after building an empire – he must have some qualms. President Nelson Mandela - he gave life to a new South Africa and while he this may be disappointing to him at the moment, he created even greater organisations.  Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross neglected his own business, in favour of setting up the humanitarian relief organisation, to such an extent that he was declared bankrupt and expelled from the organisation he established. He was overheard to say “it was worth the pain”.

A founders’ greatest gift is to leave a legacy, transforming a dream into reality that inspires others to continue with the vision and realise ongoing success.  A good leader will have an exit strategy in place and stick to the timeframe - like Maria Ramos of Transnet. He or she will be in the background and ensure that the organisation passes into capable hands and remains a stable and respected organisation. As the old saying goes no one is indispensable and if you put your hand into a bucket of water and remove it quickly (or slowly) it will leave a few ripples for a while but then settle once more.  But also remember that it was the Rainmaker who put the water into the bucket in the first place.

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