The Flounder Syndrome: the journey from Founder to Leader


Psst – let me share a secret: founders are born, leaders are made! When we ask VC investors what they look at when they assess a start-up business they will invariably say “the founder/s”. They will go on to detail what they look at in their founder/s: “domain expertise/credibility & vision, drive & discipline, ability to learn & adapt and…leadership POTENTIAL”.



Let’s break that down into coaching areas and terms.




Successful founders have experienced pain in their area of expertise and have a strong sense of how to address that pain. Their solution is not about creating a “band-aid” product, but instead identifying something that will provide relief for a great many people (it is “scalable”).


Founders are motivated to take action by something deep inside of them. This gives them the energy to “keep going” at the early stages when things don’t work out as first predicted, when others don’t see what they see and when new realities mean new opportunities.


Thus the first step from founder to leader is to share their story authentically without needing others to experience the pain or imposing that pain on others. It’s about providing EMOTIONAL Leadership to their business: defining the NORTH STAR and helping others navigate towards it.


To quote one of my coachees, Alex: “I have this impatience deep inside of me to make an impact on (climate change) – there is so much urgency around this topic and I sometimes feel my business isn’t growing/scaling fast enough, I need to inspire and empower them to accelerate.”





A sense of urgency is apparent in every Founder; resilience to work the long hours and the energy to put in the enormous effort required to start a business. As the business idea becomes a reality and they start recruiting people, they begin to realise that others may not exhibit the same traits in exactly the same way. Thus the second step from founder to leader is to learn to see the best in others.


Having POSITIVE REGARD for new team mates, using their strengths to enhance the whole and TRUSTING them to act is key. And if a Founder hires based on PURPOSE they can be sure that everyone will do the very best they can and will be motivated to learn and grow to address the business needs. This is the way to attract and retain the best talent. People learn when they feel stretched in a healthy way.


It requires a sense of discipline to prioritise and reprioritise, to distinguish between What is needed NOW, What is needed LATER, What can WAIT, What is IRRELEVANT. The most contentious discussions are around the latter two. By instilling a culture of focus and providing clarity, Founders become Leaders who prioritise and hold others, not just themselves, accountable for results.


As Raimund, the Founder of a retail tech start-up puts it:The real challenge for me as the (Founder) has been to manage and come to terms with a sense of impatience when things don’t happen the way we would like. A deep understanding around the psychology of change has helped me and my team to accept that the investment in relationship building pays off in the long run and we reap the benefits now. Also, aligning on a common vision and realistic goals has significantly strengthened our team and thus our performance.





Moving from “knowing it all” to “learning it all” is leadership maturity. Most Start-ups operate within an environment with a high degree of uncertainty and experience setbacks, usually founded on assumptions. Founders that demonstrate they are learning and can change and adapt their opinions or behaviours will ultimately ensure the success of their business.


Seeking advice and help, asking for and giving feedback generously, being willing to be challenged and showing that diverse opinions have been taken into account in decision-making all ensure that the business moves forward.


Hand in hand with this is the recognition that others’ capabilities, skills, experiences and expertise are needed. Having the humility to seek out those better than themselves and bringing them on board is key to strengthening business. Leadership requires a future-focused path while not losing sight of the road travelled thus far.


To quote another of my coachees, Amber: “..working on the perceptions and expectations of various stakeholders, the different roles each of us play in different settings helped me personally to progress professionally and bring (my business) to a higher level”





Not all Founders even want to be the leaders of their business when it has reached scale. The necessary leadership to grow a business from 2 – 50 FTEs and the necessary leadership capable of taking a business from 50 – 250+ FTEs are very different indeed. The larger the organisation, the stronger the need for clarity around roles & responsibilities, decision-making and processes/standards. Leadership becomes a joint task – with a leadership team comprised of several people who lead others to success.


As a Founder, recognising what type of leader your business requires and what sort of leader YOU are – and want to be – is also about self-awareness and the ability to LET GO. Transitioning the right leaders into a business and empowering them to lead is the final step to becoming a true leader: a LEADER of LEADERS.



“If you delegate tasks, you create followers.

If you delegate authority, you create leaders”



Written by Vanessa Cox, Partner & Executive Coach at The Preston Associates. March 2019.

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