Tips and Tactics for Navigating Founder’s Syndrome: What to Do When Working with Charismatic Leaders

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Hi, my name is Cecile and I’m a founder, I’ve worked for founders, and I train others in how to transition out of “founder’s syndrome.” Personally, I’ve founded more than one organization in my life and have participated in other startups where I was not the founder, but worked directly with the founders. I’ve seen founders, myself included, provide an invaluable service in birthing an organization and I’ve seen the very same people undermine the success of the organizations we founded.Founding an organization requires an enormous degree of personal agency and sacrifice akin to giving birth to and raising a human child. The organizations we found carry the marks of our personalities, both the positive and negative, long after we cease being the only one carrying a vision. We cast long shadows and bequeath great light. But whether we do more of one than the other is up to us as founders and the teams of dedicated people who join us in our endeavors.I’m writing this blog post because so many of us struggle with “founder’s syndrome,” whether it’s from the perspective of the loneliness and stress of being a founder or from the perspective of those of us who work with founders in one way or another. In this post I focus on the challenges and dilemmas of working with founders and what you can concretely do in such situations as well as what not to try if you value your mental health and job security! “Founder’s syndrome” refers to the challenges associated with organizations that have one or a few strong personalities in power, usually the individuals who started the organization, but sometimes also applies to charismatic leaders who have assumed power after an organization was formed. Symptoms of founder’s syndrome include, but are not limited to the following:
  • Decisions are made by the founder often without input from others.
  • The founder is deferred to in all matters regardless of their actual expertise.
  • Snap decisions and decision reversals are common without any explanation, warning, or consideration of the impact to others.
  • Information flow throughout the organization is stilted or actively stifled, with the founder at
  • Employees can often feel like they are not paid to think but simply to deliver on orders, which themselves can change at the drop of a hat, undoing weeks of effort.
  • If the organization has a board, that board can be filled by people who are loyal to the founder and not likely to countermand anything the founder has said or done.
  • Proposals for change coming from any direction other than the founder are expertly resisted and even actively discouraged.
  • Founders usually have an ‘inner circle’ of people they ‘trust’ to whom implicit power is conferred through their proximity to the founder.

Founders particularly susceptible to founder’s syndrome are often characterized by their charisma, a love of ‘shooting from the hip’ and a concomitant distaste for structure and process claiming it cramps their style, reluctance to cede meaningful power to others, a tendency towards narcissism, and a desire to surround themselves with people who are loyal to them and prefer or are able to follow with little question.

It’s critical in these situations to hold in mind that the founder is just another person doing their best, and are likely unaware to what extent their behavior is responsible for conditions in the organization. They may also be unaware that conditions are unhealthy because from their perspective nothing may seem awry. However, demonizing the founder, even if they are clearly contributing to the toxic conditions, will not support a generative way forward.I’d like to take a step back and offer my hypothesis on the fundamental power dynamics at play which I’ve written in greater detail in academic articles and my book, Collaboration that Works: A Ruthlessly Practical Handbook for a Generative World. Essentially, if power is defined as ‘the force of enactment,’ then founders are being given or are taking a disproportionate amount of power. When power is concentrated in any given individual, their brains literally change over time, reducing the neural pathways that foster empathy. I’d like to emphasize that not every founder or charismatic leader will fall prey to these tendencies but the percentage of leaders who develop these symptoms is very high with huge negative impacts to daily work life for themselves and their team. Let me also underscore the role for that those of us play who support founders unconditionally, by not holding them accountable, and not giving them relevant and difficult feedback. We, too, are implicated in this phenomena of founder’s syndrome that can have such pervasive and corrosive effects on our work environments.Just to name a few of the consequences:

  • Dis-empowerment and disengagement of employees.
  • Increase in politicking to get one’s way.
  • Siloed teams, behind the scenes bickering and bullying to ensure conformity.
  • Higher than normal turnover.
  • Expensive mistakes that are brushed off even if they were entirely avoidable.
  • Systems and processes that support the founder’s authority are implicitly maintained even if they create other problems and bottlenecks.
  • Individuals that disagree with the founder are eliminated or sidelined and silenced.
  • Inability to form meaningful connections between team members
  • An air of secrecy and fear where even talking to another team member regarding valid problems can be risky.
  • The founder feeling isolated, overworked and underappreciated for their sacrifices.
Not many of us would choose to work in such environments, but may unwittingly end up there. The real question we face once in a toxic work environment, is “What to do about it?”Read the full article for more tips.