The Founder’s Syndrome (Revisited)

Apr 29, 2014

This is necessary but difficult to write.  Let’s talk about leaders.  Specifically leaders who have started organizations and who don’t know when it’s time to fold their tent.

What is Founder’s Syndrome?

I seem to be running into quite a few of these leaders of late. They are, for the most part, wonderful people who have built great companies. However, the world has drastically changed in the last few years, and many of them seem to be struggling with how to keep up.

Or, when to let go.

In my consulting practice, we often refer to this tendency to hang on a bit beyond what’s reasonable as the Founder’s Syndrome.

The short definition for this syndrome is that the leader who started the organization some 20 or 30 years ago is finding it hard to let go. This individual is obviously in the baby boomer years, and for whatever reason, simply can’t determine a way to transition out of the organization.

Symptoms of Founder’s Syndrome

Here are the symptoms as I’ve witnessed them:

  • A Sense of Being Overwhelmed.

Maybe the organization has outgrown the leader’s ability to keep all the balls in the air or maybe the strategies needed are simply no longer a part of his repertoire. Either way, it’s a hard pill to swallow for the person who worked so hard for years and years to make the engine hum.

If you’re one of those leaders who is feeling that you’re being run over by the steam engine called progress, it may be time to start thinking of a succession plan.

  • A Regression to Micromanagement.

When a leader starts feelings that he’s losing control, she will often revert to micromanagement. Not only does this stifle the creativity of your team, it also stagnates your potential to reinvent your vision for the organization.

If you’re finding yourself focusing more on tasks than on developing your people, it may be time to regroup and reconsider your role within the organization. Are you stuck on the past or moving toward the future?

  • A Focus on Your Legacy or Lunacy?

The clock is ticking. As a leader, you only have so much time to get the company to that final destination you’ve dreamed about for so long. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to leave a legacy. That’s often the driver for leaders in the final stages of their career.

But the legacy should never equate to lunacy. By this I mean, when a leader becomes obsessed with his own legacy, he can often forget to recreate a vision that makes the best sense for the company.

There’s no need to focus on the perfect exit strategy. There will never be a time that is right for the founder to leave. But there is a wrong time. That time looks like staying beyond your point of serving the greater good of the organization and its stakeholders.

Lunacy looks like the band that keeps playing as the ship is going down. Don’t let your ego get in the way of doing that which is right.

How Does the Leader Move On?

Bottom line, if you’re a leader who wakes each morning feeling anxious or overwhelmed about the day before you, it may be time to seek some executive coaching on how to best make this transition.

Retirement isn’t what it used to be. I’ve witnessed many leaders successfully transition to a life they’ve dreamed about for years.

And, they’ve done so by strategically developing a vision for their new life and for the company. As a founder of the organization, you can still remain involved. You may find that you enjoy the role as adviser even more and that your passion for the cause is restored once you step down and embrace a secondary role.

Stay tuned and will talk more about what that transition can look like.

This post originally ran on October 4, 2013, and has been re-posted today with minor edits.

Question:  If you’re a leader living this transition, what’s the first step you’re willing to take?