Founder’s Syndrome

Posted on October 22, 2019 by

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

To live cohesively is almost a fantasy and we ought to know it starts with humbling our egos. ―Nahko Bear

Each individual in a group has a particular and unique personality style that has been shaped by the lifetime of their experience. There are driver types and quiet folk, expressives, analyticals, reserved, shy, reactive, and many others. ―The Foundation for Intentional Community website

I was the founder of a community that was established in 1987 and is still alive today. I was nicknamed the “Bulldozer” for my heavy-handed approach in pursuing my vision, sometimes stepping on people’s toes, speaking abruptly, or for being the task master and high standard setter: the person who got things done. During times of nagging criticism, I would reflect on Robin Sharma’s profound saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, just criticize.” It was apparent to me that some people chose to not get engaged because they feared making mistakes and feared getting criticized, as I did. But I was a warrior attempting to win battles in a peaceful way.

I never thought of myself as someone perfect and willingly confessed in a letter to the group that, “I can be a serious pain at times. I am human and have my weaknesses—as well as my strengths—just like each and every one of you.” I hoped we could be tolerant with one another, accept our imperfections, trust in humanity, and believe that an increasingly harmonious future was possible.

My personal situation was compounded significantly because of the leadership position I was placed in by our membership and by the general public. Although never elected, or officially appointed, I was the original founder, visionary, and main public point person for over a quarter of a century. I therefore carried the weight of responsibility for everything that happened at our community, even though I had set it up to operate by consensus. What I failed to see clearly enough was that I would be considered the root of all present, past, and future problems in the organization by some of the members. It’s a tough role and not one that I requested because I knew it would result in me having to deal with objective resistance, subjective rebellion, irrational judgments, overt and covert disrespect, and possibly the loss of connection to people I once considered to be friends. I later read books on the subject of “Founder’s Syndrome” and none of the outcome scenarios looked attractive to me.

According to Wikipedia, “Founder’s Syndrome” is a popular term for the difficulties faced by organizations where founders maintain disproportionate amounts of power and influence following the initial establishment of the project, leading to a wide range of problems for both the organization and those involved in it.

It took me about 20 years to learn that an organization still run by its founder has to deal with unique transition issues not faced by other groups. Where the founder is the personification of the organization, its vision, and mission, boards and members are usually reluctant to make the first move toward change. This was exactly the case with our transition though I eventually broke the mold and advocated passionately for stepping down gracefully and accepting the changes. Despite my well-meaning intentions, I failed in my duty to create a healthy transition to a competent new leader or management structure and I fully accept responsibility for that…but I know how hard I tried.

As the leader of two nonprofit organizations I always faced an uphill battle. I risked time, money, relationships, and my reputation to get our experimental community up and running and to keep it running for nearly three decades. Unlike most entrepreneurs, though, I had no financial upside to balance the risks I took. I told myself that my rewards were huge, just not in dollars—and my retirement nest egg was held in the sustainable lifestyle I lived. I later came to the realization that my plan was based upon an assumption of long-term community stability, which proved false.

Elizabeth Schmidt wrote in a 2013 article that it has become fashionable in nonprofit governance literature to assume that the disease called “Founder’s Syndrome” can explain every challenge that nonprofits face once their founders have done the heavy lifting. A common belief is that this is a psychological illness, and the blame for this illness falls squarely on the shoulders of the founder. She argues strongly that founders should not be automatically blamed and, instead of pointing fingers, members should themselves address certain potential symptoms.

She believes that if the organization exists just to serve the founder’s ego or if there is poor management on the part of the founder or an inability to delegate or an unwavering dedication to the original vision of the organization, it must always be addressed from a mission-centric point of view. She believes that taking the approach of reviewing the future vision will lead to a better result for all involved. Learning this, and having felt it innately since inception, I repeatedly advocated for a vision review. If only we had been able to do this effectively, it might have prevented a lot of future pain and relationship damage.

Compounding this issue was the fact that our communitarians also failed to create a safe place for open and honest communication, which is universally accepted as a cornerstone of all effective community-building. There needs to be a place where criticism and self-criticism can happen calmly and respectfully, within a framework of trust and compassion. These words are easy to write, but were so hard to live day-by-day and became clearly incongruous with the behavior of certain members in my latter years with the experiment.

My personal perspective is that people are multifaceted and none of us are perfectly behaved all the time, especially in difficult situations. How we address this issue can be the determining factor in the maintenance of collective harmony or not. I always attempted to see and acknowledge my own role in any adversarial situation, although I admit that sometimes I failed.

Countless times over the years, I accepted responsibility and apologized to members for my lapses in reasonable behavior. I also suffered from the harsh words and negative emotions of certain fellow members many, many times—and I reminded them that “Just because I am a strong character, does not mean that I don’t get hurt too. I realize that my pain has had an influence on how I relate to others and I regret that I was often unable to bring issues up in the moment and that I act defensively when I get criticized.”

I wanted to avoid responding with “I did this but you did that” in a desperate effort to level the playing field. But the fact was that critics of my leadership had their own weaknesses, problems, and idiosyncrasies, which were also real and relevant to the situation. I was the person who introduced our group to the mediation process and even wrote it into our bylaws as our accepted method for resolving disputes. I always offered to process personal issues with anyone who came forward and continued with that offer in good will, even though in latter years certain members that most needed to mediate with me, and with others, continuously refused.

It seems that insecure personalities will take every measure to avoid one-on-one mediation for fear of having to be vulnerable and compromise on their position. I learned that it can be a battle to change the norms of human communication and it seldom happens without conscious effort and professional assistance. The lack of commitment required to counterbalance our individualism with our commitment to reaching consensus created severe imbalance in our group.

Perhaps I was living in a state of denial for decades because it took me that long to realize and accept that we have basically had two polarities of thought in our group, with a few members moving between the two.

The vision I steadfastly expressed was for the creation of a utopian ecovillage community with total inclusivity integrating lots of kids and older folks with extensive outreach providing services to our neighboring community and an endless future based upon the conviction that all legal obstacles could be overcome.

The other extreme has been less articulated, but I believe envisions a cliquish and exclusive “old boys club” attitude, providing members a reclusive and private holiday home for their lifetime, with an inclination to not challenge the power of local government authorities or the whims of a few disgruntled neighbors for fear of their retaliation.

I learned that maintaining a sense of community can be extremely difficult in this modern world when trust is replaced by suspicion, gossip, and accusations, and courage gets replaced by fear as the predominant motivating force of the group. I learned the truth of Anna Jameson’s quote, “Fear, either as a principle or motive, is the beginning of all evil.” These negative factors played a significant role in our 2014 shift from what Scott Peck calls the “glory days of community” back to the “chaos phase,” with all its emphasis on rules and regulations and a lack of true consensus decision-making.

The process had started with a breakdown in my relationship with one of our members (FB) and our subsequent struggle to deal with Founder’s Syndrome.

Our community has some unusual quirks. We are an organization that’s never had a properly functioning board nor any means of making major decisions by consensus outside of our Annual General Meeting. Perhaps our most flagrant flaw is that our membership has never developed the ability to unify as communitarians. There was no better demonstration of this truth than the deteriorating relationship that grew between FB and myself.

As a student of sustainable community development, I was fully aware that dealing with interpersonal relationships is a complex subject often given inadequate attention by communities. I had been aware of this when I wrote the original Bellyacres bylaws in 1989 and had included mediation as our ultimate tool for conflict resolution. Over the years, this process had been used numerous times successfully and so, in February 2014 when my interpersonal relationship with FB seemed to have hit an all-time low, I requested mediation with him. However, he constantly refused and I felt that any chance I had to live in peace was lost.

Our issues began way back in our history and exist because of our inherent personality style conflicts. One of the most common sources of conflict and angst in all types of intentional communities is the friction between the “doers” and the talkers.” This dichotomy between task and process is very common and is often a source of conflict and frustration in community, as it also was between FB and myself.

A healthy community has a balance between task and process. My personality type is mostly focused on task and less on process. FB was the extreme opposite so he constantly criticized the process I used in fulfilling the tasks involved in running Bellyacres. We also were total opposites in our willingness to take risks. I would bulldoze ahead believing that we could find the solutions to all the problems that we might encounter. FB felt compelled to complete a thorough risk assessment covering every contingency that could possibly occur and then would not want to move forward at all because everything seemed too scary. Additionally, we had opposite viewpoints regarding compliance with government regulations, children, money, sustainability, community-building, and the overall vision of Bellyacres.

Our clashes had begun in 2005 when I hired FB to work on a major community festival project that I was producing and, after a bad experience, we mediated and agreed that we should never work together again due to our personality differences. At our 2006 A.G.M., FB renewed his confrontation with me by speaking about the “elephant in the room” and his difficulties working with me. He criticized my leadership style and personality and claimed that four members were not at the A.G.M. because of their own individual difficulties with me. He expressed concerns that there was “a pattern of behavior” which was driving members away, and wanted to bring the problem into the open. I agreed to contact the members he mentioned and stated I was willing to mediate with any members who felt a need to discuss their respective issues with me. This happened with FB and one other member, while all the others felt it wasn’t necessary.

For the next five years, FB went through a troublesome divorce, a new marriage, and immigration struggles which kept him occupied and he spent a lot of time in the UK. Before coming to live permanently at our community in 2011, he remained a very passive member, not participating at all on the land with any work projects, and we avoided any serious clashes. The following year, he instigated an assault on my character, my integrity, and my leadership, although he had no positive proposals to contribute.

Meanwhile, I was still left with responsibility for getting all the tasks done to keep Bellyacres afloat and I was getting tired of being criticized while others did nothing. There was a lot of angry talk at our meetings, but no action. I repeatedly proposed a list of tasks for specific resident members to take over from me but they constantly refused and I got frustrated because of the chaos that had been created. After quite a while, I persuaded FB to take on the job of bookkeeper but it proved to be a terrible mistake in terms of our relationship and had disastrous results by creating an opportunity for him to exercise unjustified control over the community administration under the guise of managing finances.

In December 2012 after repeated attempts to delegate responsibilities, I felt frustrated and wrote, “Days and weeks go by and the need for a business meeting increases. My list of agenda items is growing and I think it is best to share it so at least you know some of the subjects that need to be addressed. They include some critical issues like who is supervising our interns daily, what is the schedule, and what is the prioritized work list for them? When can I expect to get repaid for expenses I’ve incurred? Can we complete tasks already begun? Who will take over the horse duties which I have covered for many months on a daily basis?”

In early 2013, criticism of my leadership became the hot topic on our email chat list prior to the A.G.M.. I was still waiting for resident members to step forward and agree to take over tasks and communicated this to our full membership with an email entitled, “Time for a Change—Where’s the love?”

It read, “Hey Partners, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the recent flurry of emails and I’m clear that this is a perfect time for me to reduce my workload and stress level. For most of the last 27 years, I’ve worked about 20 hours weekly for the benefit of our community and I’m happy to announce my partial retirement. I’d like to retire more fully, but am concerned about the effects on Bellyacres.

“While some members are questioning my integrity and my intentions and cannot tolerate my style of getting things done, I can no longer endure the attitude of disrespect, aggression, and lack of love that I have been subjected to these last two years. Let’s see some positive changes with new people stepping forward. Power to the People! I am happy to shift my personal priorities to focus on my own family, homeschooling my kids plus maintaining my own home and personal projects.

“I think it’s best if I don’t attend any Home Base Group meetings until I have resolved personal issues individually with FB and any others choosing to meet with me. We can do mediation or a chat over tea if that will work.”

At the A.G.M., the atmosphere was tense and I was subjected to some very strong criticism and passive-aggressive attacks which culminated in FB once again claiming that four of our members were staying away from Bellyacres because of their relationship with me. Immediately after the meeting ended, I wrote to them all simply asking if FB’s claims were true without mentioning his name.

The four replies included “NO. I am not staying away because of our relationship.” “My dear friend and comrade Graham. I am sorry that was told to you. It is absolutely BS and untrue.” “I first get to say that you have been one of my greatest teachers and inspiring leaders. There are several reasons I do not visit Bellyacres often.” “Nope, there was some time when that was the case, but that time lies in the past.”

In addition to this fabricated altercation, FB was also using his role as bookkeeper to further antagonize me and I believed that this clash of personalities had gone far enough so I again requested mediation with FB, and some others, with a qualified mediator who offered his services. Regrettably, the response I received from these five members was that they were not willing to do individual mediation with me but wanted to meet as a group. I did accept that there are benefits to be had from group mediations; however, I felt very strongly that I had specific issues to resolve with FB, in particular, and that this required one-on-one mediation.

I remained firm on this request for individual mediation for a long time and I continued to refuse to attend our weekly meetings unless they hired an impartial facilitator. Feelings escalated to such a level that I did not trust any of the members had the ability to keep the meeting respectful.

Admittedly, this was probably not the most productive course of action; however, I had been insulted and disrespected so many times that I found it hard to stay centered and in my higher self when I was at meetings with these members. I wanted to defuse the bomb, not have the fuse and lighter waved in my face every time we met. I had reached the point where I was convinced that without mediation, our meetings would continue the spiral of declining respect and common courtesy. I was sick of being shouted at, and even being threatened with physical violence!

The standoff lasted throughout most of that year, which was most unfortunate because major significant issues had to be resolved and our discussions were divisive, which caused our group to split into factions. By November 2014, I decided to surrender my principals and agreed to group mediation with five resident members.

I took the meeting very seriously and came prepared with my thoughts carefully written out. I was the only one to do that. It was a somewhat surreal situation, more akin to a court martial than any mediation I’ve ever participated in. I began by establishing the background to the meeting and what I hoped to get out of it by saying, “We are all getting older, have known one another for many years, and shared great fun times. One of the lessons we all should have learned from friends that have recently passed on is that we can never be sure when will be our last meeting. I don’t want the last meeting I have with any of you to be one of tension and stress, I want my relationship to each of you individually to be one where compassion and respect and a remembrance of good times shared is what dominates, not the energy that we have been exchanging in recent times.

“The breakdown in our relationship which began in fall of 2012 came from more members living permanently in our community, the effects of Founder’s Syndrome, our lack of any clear agreed-upon vision, and the severe and aggressive disrespect shown to my wife from several members.”

Consequently my requests for the mediation were:

● a verbal statement from each person accepting responsibility for their personal role in the deterioration of relationships over the last two to three years;

● participation in individual mediation sessions with me—hopefully as a heartfelt show of good faith—but otherwise as an acceptance of our bylaws;

● an acknowledgement of responsibility from individuals who acted unfairly or unjustly towards my wife.

Unfortunately, I was granted none of my requests. Instead, as a sign of good faith, I chose to acquiesce fully to all the requests made of me which simply referred to future financial details and, surprisingly, an agreement to leave them some fruit on trees that I regularly harvested.

I have always understood the potential for intensely personal issues to arise and had written community ground rules in our bylaws. However, they only work if members willingly act as responsible communitarians. The fact that our community was largely comprised of unintentional communitarians hit me head-on. The outcome of this “court martial” was disastrous and did nothing to heal any wounds or promote us to work together in harmony.

It was still a great shock and surprise to me that, within weeks of this meeting, I left my community after 27 years to start a totally new life adventure. This so-called mediation impacted my decision considerably and was the last straw that broke this camel’s back.

The above is adapted from Graham Ellis’ book Juggling Fire in the Jungle―my journey of thirty years in a sustainable community experiment, which is available as an e-book from the FIC Bookstore.

Graham Ellis was the founder of Bellyacres, the Village Green Society, Hawaii’s Volcano Circus, and the Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance. He also directed a renowned youth circus program that morphed into a uniquely crafted community center, hosting a school, a farmers market, performance arts workshops and shows, neighborhood events, and even a church. He has been acknowledged by Hawai’i’s Governor plus state and county officials for being an innovative community builder and champion of sustainability. Graham was deported from the US in 2017 and now lives with his wife in the UK waiting to reunite their family.

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The Importance of Mediation

After you have been working together for awhile, an attentive person with training will recognize members’ personalities and styles and then use that understanding to predict how the group will react to different situations. As the group gets into conflicts, the elements of group dynamics and personality style need to be taken into account by the facilitators of the group. Having someone within the group who is trained in mediation skills, or hiring an outside trained mediator, can be very useful. The group will need to decide how mediation is to be handled and under what circumstances it will be used. Setting up conflict mediation early is important, so that a plan can be in place should a major conflict occur. Having an outside opinion can do wonders for a stuck process.


Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

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