According to Wikipedia, “Founder's syndrome (also founderitis) is the difficulty faced by organizations, and in particular young companies such as start-ups, where one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence following the effective initial establishment of the organization, leading to a wide range of problems. The syndrome occurs in both nonprofit and for-profit organizations or companies.”
The decision-making and behaviors of a founder can have either a draining or energizing effect on the rest of the team. While the challenge of teamwork is no easy obstacle, there are tools and techniques for improving team communication, workplace collaborations, and scaling effective leadership. When decisions, strategy, and vision all end with the founder, that's where bottlenecks can happen.
I recently worked with a client who was a founder/CEO trying to get out of their own way. This leader was in the process of stepping back and supporting the executive team. He knew it needed to happen. He had realized the limitations of trying to lead everything himself. He’d been told by the board that he must step back. He'd been asked by the team to give them more trust. But that can be difficult.
Fortunately, the team this person had surrounded himself with was highly skilled and had been in positions before (at other companies) where they’d seen the effects of Founder’s Syndrome.
In fact, some of them said, “It’s great that we're doing this work now because I've worked with CEOs before who couldn't do it.”
Those failed CEOs couldn’t admit the problem started with them. They couldn’t scale themselves. They couldn't even face the fact that this was a necessary and challenging part of the role.
Step one is realizing that stopping the bad habit of doing everything yourself is central to your work as a founder, and an issue we all deal with as people. We're all trying to make the best decisions with the information we have.
But why is it so hard for founders with great teams to let go?
When you’ve been the visionary trailblazer and are used to taking all the risks, responsibility, and rewards for yourself, trusting other people to lead can be hard.
Guess what? They will step up and act if you communicate well and let them execute.
Trusting others to do things the way you would is hard.
Guess what? They won’t. They will have their own way of leading and communicating in the workplace that will look nothing like yours. Focus on the “what” and the “why.” Let them focus on the “how.”
Having faith that things will go in the right direction without evidence or having something demonstrated or modeled for you is difficult.
Guess what? It may go differently than you planned. That’s what an innovative, growth mindset – and plans B and C – are for.
It's hard to fall backward off the stage and believe that the hands of your adoring crowd will appear and crowd-surf you to glory. The best you can do is surround yourself with people who are highly skilled and better at these things than you are.
That's the name of the game in founder's syndrome – believe and communicate, then measure.
At an offsite with the Executive Team, I drew several pictures of musical instruments on the wall – a microphone, guitar, drum set, bass guitar, keyboard, saxophone, and turntable.
I asked the group, “What instrument in the band are you playing?” and asked them to go stand next to it. Then, we had a conversation about what those instruments represent. Everyone had different reasons for playing the instruments they chose, but each one communicated in confidence and strength when explaining why they chose it.
I told the story about Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.
Herbie had joined Miles’ touring band in 1963. In late ‘63 or ‘64, they played a festival in Germany. Herbie was still new to the group. There was a lot at stake and he still felt he had something to prove.
On stage, during one of Miles’ famously lyrical trumpet solos, Herbie played the wrong chord on the piano.
Herbie winced. He placed his hands over his ears. He knew he had messed up and he froze. He thought for sure he had just destroyed the performance and was potentially getting fired from the band.
In the mere seconds that followed, Miles took a breath and played a series of notes on the trumpet that resolved the chord (or made the chord “correct”).
Herbie was stunned. “What just happened?” he thought. It wasn’t until later that he realized the importance of that lesson. Miles wasn’t judging the chord Herbie played. In Miles’ mind, it wasn’t “wrong;” it was simply new information – a new event that required a choice to be made.
In jazz, as in business, to succeed as leaders, we must be able to forget the idea of “failure” or “mistakes” and simply accept situations for what they are. We need to turn that poison into medicine and be able to add value no matter what. As executives and people we must lift each other up as we climb.
So then, it’s not just a matter of what instrument you’re playing in the band, but what notes you are playing. As a founder, what chords are your talented team members playing – and what notes can you add to resolve or stabilize the business?
As a leader, how do you treat yourself when you make mistakes? Do you have a hard time turning the poison of failure into the medicine of learning?
Finally, in music as in life, it comes down to listening. The singer is listening to the bass player to stay in key. The bass player is listening to the drummer to keep the tempo. If we hear the sounds the other person is playing, we can respond in kind. If we aren’t listening to one another in the business (or in the marketplace), there will be chaos.
Communication at work is a journey, not a destination. It’s a circuitous relationship that requires both active and reflective listening from moment to moment.
If you're leading an organization today, ask yourself the following questions:
You can learn more about leadership by downloading the first three chapters of my Visionary Leadership book here.
ABOUT THE Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author and consultant with certifications in coaching, storytelling, design thinking and virtual facilitation.