Insight into the “Iconic” Founder CEO


Are you one of these “iconic” founder CEOs or perhaps working for one?

Innovator, creator, and entrepreneur are all nouns that describe many CEOs in our fast-evolving, information/technology-driven culture. It is not uncommon that these accomplished CEOs drive their company with their vision, their passion, their creativity, and their tenacity to succeed and, quite often, to prove to others that they are successful. This intense drive may be triggered by their need to prove themselves or to receive positive reaffirmation in the present to compensate for judgmental-type, authority figures or other significant people who were emotionally unavailable to them in their past. In my experience, working with different founder CEOs, both in privately owned and publicly-traded companies, I have seen the difficulty that organizations experience when these entrepreneurs are unable to “let go” of their central role of founder CEO. Often, they unconsciously prevent the company from expanding or shifting the business paradigm under which the company was first created in order to prove to others their self-worth despite their proven success. They have become “addicted” to being the “identity icon” for their company.

They tend to establish a culture of dependency around them and are more likely to centralize strategic decision making and expect their demands to be on top of the priority list of those working “for them” in the organization. They often find themselves in a dichotomous situation. On the one hand, they know they need to bring in very talented, current, smart, and expert leaders with a new perspective and the skills to lead the organization into the future. On the other hand, their need for reaffirmation and centrality will neutralize the actions of newcomers. They will question the ideas and creativity of new leaders and, at times, disrespect personal and professional boundaries by imposing their agenda with a total disregard for anyone else’s. They constantly play the “know-it-all” and “nobody knows better than I” role. They may often lose touch with their environment and see the organization as an extension of themselves, and they are not very connected or aware of how their behavior is affecting the overall organization. People working in this kind of culture rely on personal loyalty to the “icon” figure in order to succeed, survive, and be rewarded.

Organizations under this kind of leadership often experience a high turnover at the senior level. Independent, self-driven, and smart executives are hired only to be replaced with other independent, self-driven, and smart executives and, within a relatively short period, they become frustrated, experience high levels of anxiety, and fear that their performance is not meeting the expectations of the “icon.” From the perspective of these founder CEOs, they feel that those who are working for them “just don’t get it” without any awareness that if eight out of eight of the executive team are not “getting it,” it may be a sign that the founder CEOs are out of touch and overly concerned with being the center of attention in order to feed their need to be recognized and reaffirmed by others. Unfortunately, organizations that fall into this style of leadership are often governed by a weak Board of Directors who were initially appointed by a founder CEO, based upon personal relationships, and who are incapable of providing substantial governance and feedback and do not hold the founder CEO accountable for his or her actions.

How do you feel about this type of leadership and do you have any suggestions of how to positively disrupt this dynamic? We welcome your comments and/or feedback.

We would also like to hear your ideas for new blog topics.

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