Dismantling founder’s syndrome

Founder’s syndrome is widely whispered about in the non-profit sector but rarely analyzed or dismantled. Contributor Susanna Kislenko has been studying the phenomenon for years and offers some insight.

Founder’s syndrome is widely whispered about in the non-profit sector but rarely analyzed or dismantled. Contributor Susanna Kislenko has been studying the phenomenon for years and offers some insight.

Nina Hudson steps up to the podium to begin her highly anticipated speech. She is smiling and determined, with a clear vision and a plan for achieving it. The speech, delivered to a room full of both individual and institutional funders, is a success, and the cheques start flooding in even before she has left the podium. The long-time leader of a well-known charity – who also happens to be its founder – Nina steps off the stage, turns off her megawatt smile, turns to her second-in-command, and is handed her smartphone, where a slew of emails await her approval. Although Nina appears put-together onstage, the operations of the charity she heads are anything but. Everything is delayed and bottlenecked until Nina has given the green light, even something as simple as a few lines of email text. No one in the organization, regardless of title, has the autonomy to decide anything, and board members are provided with only the specific information that Nina wants them to see. And that is just how she likes it. There is no succession plan, and Nina is actively fighting the creation of one internally. Externally, however, she signals that certain staff members are being trained to step up. It, like so many other things in the organization, is a ruse.

This is founder’s syndrome.

What we have known about the problem until now has been only the surface-level description associated with a founder wanting to maintain control.

Founder’s syndrome is widely whispered about in the non-profit sector but rarely analyzed or dismantled. To date, even when the problem is identified in an individual, the conversation generally does not extend beyond flagging it and maybe telling a few colleagues or other people in the sector. What we have known about the problem until now has been only the surface-level description associated with a founder wanting to maintain control. It is that, but it is also much deeper. The person with founder’s syndrome wants to maintain control at all costs. One former employee who used to work with such a person explains it in this way:

[The organization] was his baby and he was never going to go, that was for sure. He would never give control out of his hands. He tried. For example, when we had a new location, he would put one person in charge, but he couldn’t … he was always there.

This desire to control seeps into every aspect and activity of the organization and affects the information that each employee, board member, and funder receives. Nothing is truly transparent. Every piece of information is carefully curated to reflect the image the founder wants to project.

Crafting the narrative

The first important thing to understand about founder’s syndrome is that not every founder has it and that it is both widespread and limited to specific leaders motivated by their desire for control, particularly of the narrative about their image and organization. These people always want to be viewed more as a founder than a leader, and they have a preconceived view of how a founder should look, speak, and behave. Their very identity depends on it, and they are usually willing to do anything to maintain their idealized image in the public eye.

Within the organization, founder’s syndrome often results in dysfunctional leadership and management practices, as well as a social structure that forms around the leader to protect their image. Among other things, people with founder’s syndrome are driven primarily by the need to control their organizations at all costs, and this often results in a conflict between activities that keep the founder’s image at the forefront and those that would actually deliver on mission. One of the ways these people maintain control is with the kind of information they allow to be shared, both internally and externally.

Founder’s syndrome often results in dysfunctional leadership and management practices.

Most organizations led by someone with founder’s syndrome exhibit the classic elements of toxic workplaces and are characterized by a lack of transparency. The founder is the primary decision-maker, and the image of the organization is intertwined with their personal image. This, in turn, influences succession planning (or, more accurately, its absence), as the founder would not actually want anyone to succeed them. As one former employee of such a leader explains:

Without [the founder], there’s no [organization]. I feel like [the organization] will die a slow death. It will die a slow death without her. Because it’s all about her. She’s the central figure. She’s the one who speaks to media. [The organization] is a product of [the founder] and not vice versa.

The need to control is also fuelled by a pervasive lack of trust, as the founder believes no one can do anything better than they can. Evidence can be found in various organizational practices that undermine the expertise and knowledge of employees. For example, all employees (regardless of rank) may be required to submit weekly detailed logs of each of their daily activities, a practice not common in most workplaces. No part of the organization is immune to the effects of this overwhelming lack of trust and the micromanagement it creates.

If someone does outwardly manage to surpass the founder’s image in the public eye and the founder for a moment feels they are in danger of someone else assuming their “saviour of the world” title, they will often try to destroy or remove this person, even if their loyalty has been proven in the past. You’re either with me or against me, as the saying goes. For a current on-screen example, see Gerri Kellman in HBO’s Succession. This TV series shows Logan Roy, a fictional character created from an amalgamation of real people, as the embodiment of the problem. Everything portrayed in Succession can happen in an organization plagued by founder’s syndrome, and there are virtually no limits.

The “founder pedestal”

Since leaders with founder’s syndrome often possess narcissistic tendencies, a social structure develops organically around them to protect the image they have carefully crafted and to ensure they remain the focal point. This structure is not formally created by the founder but develops over time as their public image becomes increasingly solidified. Employees, board members, funders, and other stakeholders (including the general public) all make up the protective social structure.

This structure is not formed right at the start of the organization, but its key components are seeded not long after. Those with founder’s syndrome will often surround themselves with an inner circle that acts to protect the leader’s positive image, as well as the information that is distributed within and outside the organization. Members of the inner circle, who have been there from inception and have proven unwavering loyalty to both the founder and their perceived aims, have a great deal at stake (financially, reputationally, or otherwise) that is tied to the image of the founder remaining as is.

Those with founder’s syndrome will often surround themselves with an inner circle that acts to protect the leader’s positive image.

Individuals in the inner circle are likely to hold high-ranking titles within the organization, often obtained as the result of long-standing devotion to the founder rather than any real expertise in the functional area they oversee. As the pedestal social structure is characterized by a lack of transparency, the founder carefully selects the information the board receives, which is often put together by inner circle members who keep the information protected. This high level of curation is generally hidden from other employees. One person who works at such an organization described it in the following way:

The information that went to the board was very specific and it was not open-ended, so it was not transparent. I only became aware of that because something was sent to the board that wasn’t supposed to be sent, and [the founder] was just fuming … So that kind of made me start [to be] aware that not everything was clear to the board.

Funders often receive even less information than board members, and that information is also carefully curated. Board members and funders, then, are unlikely to ask the hard questions – not because they don’t have them, but rather as the consequence of the founder’s leadership style – and this is where the opportunity lies. By being aware that certain types of founders are masterful at ensuring that only certain information is shared with board members and key stakeholders, these same groups can push for additional details on various facets of the organization and build other relationships within the organization, beyond the one they already have with the founder.

Seeing beyond the obstructed view

If you can get past the blinding lights of the founder’s charms, the truth can be uncovered. The recent Theranos trial in the United States – deconstructing the activities of Elizabeth Holmes as someone with founder’s syndrome – shed light on questions key stakeholders could have asked prior to the discovery of major fraud within the organization. The Theranos case, where faulty medical equipment was used to conduct blood tests and distribute incorrect results, is not as uncommon as one may think. The scale of it is unique, but the warning signs exist in all such organizations that are protected by a social structure that keeps the leader in their desired place on top of the pedestal. In fact, there are several parallels between the WE Charity scandal in Canada and the Theranos case in Silicon Valley.

The person with founder’s syndrome often has narcissistic tendencies and is using the organization as a vehicle for their personal goals, which often include the desire to be revered publicly. One employee describes it this way:

What I observe [is that] the more achievements she has and the more acknowledgements she gets, the more she needs. So for instance, every time there’s a conference or something, you have to read her whole bio – everybody has to know it. … It’s a whole page of listing everything she’s ever done. But it’s not enough; it’s just she continually strives for more acknowledgement, and I don’t understand it. It’s like she’s constantly hungry.

This insatiable hunger for attention and recognition can put the organization’s outward goal of delivering on mission into question or, even worse, into conflict with the founder’s personal goals. Holmes, for example, continued to market her faulty blood-testing device – and thus herself as the “saviour” who discovered it – while knowing the device did not actually work.

Founders who are using the organization as a vehicle for their personal aims select missions that are both grandiose and virtually unattainable.

When looking to identify whether a given leader or organization is afflicted with founder’s syndrome, it can be useful to examine the mission itself. Founders who are using the organization as a vehicle for their personal aims select missions that are both grandiose – in that no one can argue with their value – and virtually unattainable. In this way, they can maintain the image of being the only one who can “save the world” from its dangers and continue to exist on the pedestal of public opinion.

This finding is consistent across both non-profit and for-profit organizations. The sector itself does not appear to matter; most important is the type of mission the organization employs. When the mission is expansive – such as achieving world peace or eradicating global poverty – it is hard to argue against such a positive outcome. The founder creates a product or service that could bring about this outcome, and they possess the charisma and storytelling capacity to sell a compelling founding narrative, which further ties their identity to the mission. If you think about it, however, a mission like “eradicating global poverty,” though it sounds impressive and admirable, is virtually impossible to measure or track and says nothing about specific community impact. Although it is not the case that every founder-run non-profit with lofty goals is a founder’s syndrome organization, if the organization does not have specific deliverables for the community baked into its mission and vision, it may be worth a second look.

On the surface, founder’s syndrome may seem like an invisible disorder that is hard to detect. A multi-layered and complex phenomenon, it may seem daunting to take on. The phenomenon is complex – and challenges preconceived notions of what founders are “supposed” to be like – but its dark nuances should not deter us from actively working to identify warning signs of this social structure early on and then assuming the responsibility to dismantle it.

All direct quotations used in this article come from original data, which was collected through interviews with founders and employees in founder-run organizations across 16 countries. Some names have been withheld to provide anonymity. “Nina Hudson” is not a real person; she is a composite character who demonstrates a number of aspects of founder’s syndrome. An expanded discussion on founder’s syndrome can be found here.


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