Founders: It’s all Their Fault (or Mostly Anyway)

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NPQ has done quite a bit of writing about founders over the years—partly because people seem so focused on them and, maybe, partly because they really abound in this sector. If youngish, of course, they are called social entrepreneurs, but pretty much anyone of that ilk over fifty is called a founder and psychologized within an inch of his or her life.

That’s why this article by Betsy Schmidt we published last week, “Rediagnosing ‘Founder’s Syndrome’: Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Improve Nonprofit Performance,” really hit home. A quote from the piece—”[I]t has become fashionable in governance literature to assume that a disease called ‘Founder’s Syndrome’ can explain every challenge that nonprofits face once their founders have done the heavy lifting”—reminded me of a time years ago when I listened to a friend describe why metaphors are both so useful and so problematic. She said, “Imagine someone says of someone, She is like a lion, so fierce! That may describe one part of who is being described, but in drawing attention to that characteristic one fades out other important characteristics, and in the worst of situations the person becomes defined by the metaphor.”

It feels like this is what happens to founders. It is not that they individually do not exhibit some of the pattern of tendencies, but the way that they are characterized just becomes a self-reinforcing loop. As Betsy Schmidt describes it: “Among the many ironies with this type of thinking is the widespread belief that denial is a major part of Founder’s Syndrome, much as it is with alcoholism. This belief makes it almost impossible to defend oneself without simultaneously exhibiting a symptom of the disease.”

I urge you to read Betsy’s brilliant article, and then, if you like, go on to “Founders and Other Gods” and “Departing? Arriving? Surviving and Thriving: Lessons for Seasoned and New Executives.”

And there are more where these came from. Don’t struggle in isolation with these issues—this is what NPQ is here for.

  • Richard M. Biery

    Ruth: Right on. I admit to having written about “founder’s Syndrome” myself. Your warnings concerning the use of metaphors is also not heard very often and is telling. Best.