Founder's Syndrome: Its Impact and Resolution

Those who create a business through their imagination, determination, and creative-productive energies exemplify bold entrepreneurial qualities that are greatly admired. And given that they often undertake such initiatives at considerable financial and professional risk, they feel a great sense of responsibility and credit for their success. Their ideas and methods have proven effective, and even more, they have come to trust their instincts.

Reliance on their individual and independent competence that has taken them beyond economic break-even and carried them to critical mass and financial stability. Thus it becomes the foundation of their confidence. This profile of initiative and experience has been labeled “founder’s syndrome”. It includes some distinct features: A pattern of asserting and holding a disproportionate level of power and control over the firm’s decisions, and being the dominant source of influence.

The Anxious Founder

But even among those who manifest founder’s syndrome there are differences based upon their vulnerabilities to anxiety (and fear). Those who are more fearless may seem to resist the ideas of others and/or appear skeptical of other's judgment. However, even as such, they may realistically anticipate periodic failures and view them as less threatening. These founders may be more fearless, have a higher than average “adventure quotient”, and simply prefer to bet on their own judgment.

Although the behavior and style of the fearless founder may create problems, there is another style of founder that can be much more problematic. What I have in mind are those with a higher than average baseline level of anxiety. They may even have a bit of an adventure quotient, but they are anything but fearless. This creates a conflicted personality and a more volatile temperament. They’ll tend to worry excessively about known and unknown risks, sometimes with little rational basis for these emotions.

They can be a very disruptive force in an organization. They may be admired for their knowledge, skills, and practical judgment, but also feared for their explosive temper and unpredictable moods. In most cases, their moments of emotional dysregulation are witnessed only by those closest to them, family and close collaborators with whom they form close family-like ties. Those exposed to their aggressive-defensive behaviors, which periodically if unpredictably erupt, either stay and accommodate or leave.

How to Cope with Founders

The fearless founder may present challenges to those more talented hires who aspire to building managerial and leadership careers. They may even make life difficult for those whose interests incline more toward creative freedom rather than executive authority. However, in most cases because they retain a sense of rational self-interest, they can be reasoned with and learn to delegate responsibility and authority to at least a few key executives who have proven themselves.

These proven few may then be able to buffer the intrusive and disruptive tendencies of the founder, so that at the next levels down a more collaborative and distributed approach to leadership can develop. As this approach proves to be effective - enabling retention of talent and growth of the business - the founder becomes more of a believer in professional management[1]. He/she often finds satisfying ways to become the voice of the brand without usurping the roles of others.

The anxious founder, on the other hand, is a more “dicey” challenge to confront. Although some of the same strategies that work for the fearless founder – creating boundaries and distributing authority, and buffering disruptive behavior and building confidence – may work with the anxious founder, it requires great patience and special talents. An external professional is usually necessary to help facilitate this kind of negotiated and psychologically based change.


[1] Professional management implies “hired” management who act on behalf of the owners. The may or may not be offered an equity interest in the business. That can be a very touchy topic, especially for the anxious founder.  

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