Founder’s Syndrome – Blessing or Curse

There are many articles and books written about the founder’s syndrome. Some present the founder as if he/she held some mystical power over the organization. Some present a story where all the challenges of the organization are framed as “the founder’s fault.” Truth be told, in some organizations they do…but in many, it’s just myth, but more often than not these issues exist due to a lack of strong governance on the part of the board of directors.

In my nonprofit experiences I’ve seen situations where the founder’s vision was powerful, positive, inspiring and based on a vision to solve serious societal problems. What the founder possessed literally gave birth and continues to give life to the organization. I’ve also seen situations where the founder literally maintained a stranglehold, without intending to, over the organization long after they retired. They continued to have a strong influence over the board and staff leaders. This resembles a dysfunctional family where the parent could not or would not let go, and the child never learned to sprout their own roots and wings.

This blog post is an attempt to gain a clearer perspective on how to leverage the best of the founder’s vision, determination and good work…and transition to a new and even brighter future. And while doing so, honoring the founder and allowing for new and needed leadership to flourish.

We must recognize that the founder “put it all on the line” and risked his/her reputation, finances, time and relationships to bring their vision to reality. Also recognize that there are very few people who possess the talents to: a) envision, b) build, c) grow, d) sustain and e) transition any organization. These different phases take distinctly different skill sets to achieve. Expecting the founder to possess all the skills is just unrealistic.

Whether they have personality issues, poor management, no succession planning, or any one of a myriad of other issues…be cautious that the founder doesn’t become the scapegoat.

Transitions from the founder to the next leadership generation presents unique challenges.

  • Most board members have no experience in how to transition from the founder to new leadership.
  • Often, it’s easy to love the founder and yet struggle with how to delicately and smartly figure out how to honor their immense earlier contributions, and clearly articulate why that’s not what’s needed in the organization’s next chapter.
  • Founding boards tend to be made up of close friends and family members. The next generation often needs to do major best practice application to mature into more highly functioning board.
  • Founders can be stubborn, determined, myopic, work relentlessly long hours and aren’t good listeners…which is probably why they were good founders.
  • People often defer to the founder out of respect, caution or even fear, even when the founder’s advice or opinions aren’t helpful.
  • Many founders have a hard time separating themselves (their actual identity) from the organization. New board members and CEO’s struggle with how to transition to what’s needed.

What should the board do to honor the founder’s contributions and engage him/her in an appropriate way?

Four things to consider before acting:

  1. Application of strong governance practices is almost always the best solution. This avoids placing blame anywhere, and places (and appropriately so) the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the board of directors and CEO. The question of “How does the board strengthen itself, and thus the overall organization?” needs to asked again and again.
  2. Focus on the three fiduciary duties of loyalty, responsibility and care. (Much more is written on this in other places) This ensures that the leaders care for and advance the mission, vision and values of the organization. Their key responsibility is to these three duties, not to the founder.
  3. Making sure that the board is implementing things like: strong recruitment practices, staying abreast of strong governance policies, conflict of interest, budgeting and transparency issues, to name just a few, will ensure progress. This also uses the board’s experiences and talent in a strategic and generative way, and keeps them “out of the weeds and on the rails.”
  4. While doing these things it’s important for the leadership to not get tunnel vision on policy-setting and best practices only, but rather to maintaining a balance of good governance and doing other essential work (fundraising, friend-raising, events, generative conversations, etc.) to advance the organization.

Staying focused on the mission, especially during difficult times, will lead to productive behavior. It will also help avoid reactive or “knee-jerk” decision-making.

Ready to act? Here are my “Top 10” questions to strengthen the board:

  1. What is the board doing to steward and advance the organization’s mission?
  2. When was the last time your mission, vision and values have been refined?
  3. How current is the strategic plan? Is it a “living document” used to guide the work of the CEO?
  4. Are the strategic planning goals exciting, life-giving and essential to the organization?
  5. What processes are in place to allow the board to do a self-assessment?
  6. What processes are building a “deep bench” related to potential new board members? Is the list of candidates one that will bring needed talent, connections and resources to the board?
  7. Does the board annually review the executive director’s performance and benefits package?
  8. What is in place to ensure that 100% of the board gives/gets annually?
  9. What’s the last/next topic the board has chosen for professional board development training?
  10. What is the quality of the onboarding process like for new board members?

Remember you “eat the elephant” one bite at a time. Encourage the board or board subcommittees to wrestle with these questions and ideas, and then implement them on a manageable schedule. This will ensure that the board is strengthened, and thus the support for the CEO, leading the advancement of the entire organization.

Afterall, what could honor the founder more than to strengthen the organization for greater sustainability and impact.

Some ideas adapted from “Founder’s Syndrome Article - Improve Nonprofit Performance”

By Elizabeth Schmidt on July 1, 2013.


This blog shares perspectives on how you have the ability to create new story endings that are filled with greater meaning, power and hope. Brian Becker facilitates leadership and culture changing processes that help organizations achieve greater impact. He also provides leadership coaching to help executives and aspiring leaders become the fullest expression of who they’re intended to be.

If you're looking for coaching or consulting services, you can contact Brian here

#leadership #vision #culture #nonprofit