Founder’s syndrome undermines the legacy of strong leaders

Founder’s syndrome is a pathological pattern of behaviour that sometimes afflicts the founders of organizations. Management consultants colloquially refer to it as ‘founderitis’

Founder’s syndrome occurs when a strong-minded founder, who battled against odds to build an organization, ends up becoming its biggest constraint to growth.

I see it as an autoimmune disease that infects founders and consequently undermines the organizations that they worked hard to build. I encounter a new case of founder’s syndrome every couple of months in my consulting work.

In this article I’ll define founder’s syndrome and two ways of seeing it. I will also discuss how it is caused, its common symptoms, how it is treated and how to prevent it.

Be hopeful, not optimistic

Recently, I have noticed that there seems to be a shortage of hope in the world.

Despite the incredible progress that we have made as a species, everything seems to be a mess. There are problems everywhere we look.

Yet despite these problems, we need hope to give meaning and direction to our suffering.

This article will reflect on the nature of hope and the three ingredients that constitute it. It will also consider what leaders can do to cultivate genuine hope (and not false hope) among their followers.

Does your organization have FOGO?

Now that the lockdown in South Africa has started to lift, I’m noticing how many people are struggling with FOGO – an acronym for ‘Fear of Going Out’. 

They have established a safe bubble during lockdown, and are anxious about venturing out and confronting the turbulent world that awaits them. This tendency seems to be the antithesis of FOMO, which we all know as the ‘Fear of Missing Out’.

This article explores the characteristics of FOGO in organizations, and what you, as a leader, can do about it.

I encourage leaders to realize that their organizations must venture out before it’s too late. The cost of inaction may be irreversible. This unusual moment will come to an end, sooner rather than later, and we will all have to enter the uncertain world outside.

Leaders must confront their brutal truths but never give up their hopes

It is becoming much clearer what the next 12 months will look like for our organizations. For some organizations, it looks quite bleak; for others there may be a measure of hope.

I’m writing this article in early August 2020 in South Africa. The coronavirus pandemic appears to be over the hump of the first wave over here, and hopefully in decline. People have learned how to navigate through the dangers and restrictions that confront them each day. It looks like the initial panic is slowly subsiding. 

Leaders are able to distill evidence and trends to infer what their organizations will look like over the next year. For many leaders, this outlook is legitimately distressing. Their organizations, their beneficiaries and customers, their strategic context, may look very different from how they did in the past. 

I advise leaders to consider the Stockdale Paradox, in which I’ve found solace in recent months. This paradox suggests that leaders must confront and accept the brutal truth of what they see.

The four outcomes of good leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently – about what good leadership is and what type of leaders the world needs right now. There seems to be turmoil everywhere, but also opportunity.

I’m very mindful of how leaders behave and the outcomes they achieve in their teams, organizations and communities. I’m fortunate to have worked with some very skilled (and poor) leaders, and witnessed a variety of leadership styles.

I’ve noticed that good leaders are able to achieve four key outcomes among their team members, subordinates and followers. I unpack these in this article, as well as the three biggest mistakes that I tend to make as a leader.

We are heading towards some difficult times with many challenges on the horizon. While none of us know how this will ultimately turn out, we can be sure that many of us need to become better leaders. Focusing on these four outcomes will help us to remain on course.

Manifesto on strategic clarity

Most of my time is spent helping leaders of non-profit organizations and social enterprises to cultivate strategic clarity.

I want them to think clearly about their organizations. I want them to make sensible decisions and act swiftly upon them.

But I’ve noticed how easily we get lost in the activities, documents and tools of strategy. These can become an end in themselves.

I recommend we shift our attention to what we’re trying to achieve: clarity of thinking and good decision-making. Then we become open to possibilities we never considered before. Sometimes, all we need is a good night’s sleep.

This article explores some creative ideas for how we can improve our strategic clarity.

Estimating probabilities is key to strategy

Leaders must be good at taking bets against the future. They must be able to choose a course of action that is most likely to advance their organization in an uncertain world. Competent leaders make the right bets most of the time; bad leaders don’t.

However, many of the leaders I help are overwhelmed by the strategic choices facing their non-profit organization or social enterprise. 

They have realized that they have limited resources such as time, attention, money and people. They recognize that they cannot pursue all opportunities. Neither can they protect against all threats and risks, with equal enthusiasm, despite wanting to do so. They have learned that the future is uncertain and unpredictable. They have begun to accept their limitations as leaders.

Leaders must learn how to embrace the ‘agony of choice’. They must become skilled at estimating probabilities. They must learn to act swiftly with imperfect information.

Leading “start-ups” versus established organizations

Many social entrepreneurs set up organizations in order to change the world. Those working on a “start-up” enterprise need to think differently about their organizations from those who run established or mature organizations.

While start-ups require entrepreneurs to exist in a state of high-energy hustle, established organizations require leaders who are good at building systems and achieving results through others.

Treating an established organization like a start-up can do more harm than good! It may constrain an organization’s evolution by locking it into a developmental stage. Conversely, handling a start-up (with its limited resources and unrefined approach) in the same way that you would treat an established organization would make it difficult to get it off the ground.

The wisdom is knowing when your organization has become established (it normally takes around 5 years) and then shifting your thinking and behaviour accordingly.

This article explores how social entrepreneurs and leaders should see and treat their organizations, depending on whether they are busy setting it up or whether it is already established.

How to stay happy, sane and productive while working in the business of changing the world

I gave this presentation to social entrepreneurs at The Mensch Network in Cape Town on 27 February 2019. It was a very engaging discussion. I learned as much from the participants as they did from me.

This presentation contains 10 pieces of Unconventional Advice that have served me well in my career, and which have helped to accelerate my progress. The origin of this presentation was a letter that a young social entrepreneur had written to me about her anxiety about not being able to “plot a clear path into the future”. This presentation explores how careers have changed and how adopting this advice will put you in good stead for the future.

“Necessary endings”: why we need to make them to move forward

We are all called upon to make endings in our work and personal lives. This can be a painful process that many of us postpone until it is too late. Endings can also be enabling – they can help us get unstuck and move forward in the right direction.

Learning how to end things is both a life-skill and a leadership-skill.

However, it is one of the things that my clients most struggle with – how to identify when to end something and knowing how to do it in the right way.

The book “Necessary Endings” by Dr Henry Cloud is profound and changed how I work with endings. It is the book that I most frequently recommend to clients. I encourage you to read it. This article pays homage to the wisdom in this book.

This article discusses some themes from the book that are most relevant to my consulting work. It adopts an organizational focus, while the book also explores the role of endings in our personal lives. This article will get you thinking more about the inevitability and value of endings.

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