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December 26, 2005

The Founder's Dilemma: Giving Life Twice

Whether a founder, an entrepreneur or even a later arriving star, men and women whose genius gives life to organizations regularly confront a profound choice: renewing that gift of life by letting go, or risking the death of the enterprise.

As challenging as it is to birth (or rebirth) an enterprise, the effort does have this reinforcing quality: both the founder/entrepreneur/renewer and the enterprise are at a beginning. The horizon is filled with unknowns giving energy and promise to each -- to the organization and to the founder. In creating the enterprise, the founder is also creating him or herself. This win/win phenomenon applies to for-profits and not-for-profits both. A dream pervades the scene to inspire all -- and especially the founder -- seeking to make that dream real.

None of which is to minimize the extraordinary array of difficulties, challenges and pitfalls. Indeed, that is why converting dreams into reality is the stuff of legend. It is why founders take on the mantle of the gods -- not literally -- but surely figuratively. Founders and entreprenuers are special in special ways.

This specialness, this legendary status is self-understood. Founders and entrepreneurs are aware of it -- they have to be because, in fact, they are not gods but human beings. They know what they have accomplished. And, it is not just pride that explains their faith in themselves. Founders and entrepreneurs sincerely and appropriately believe their guiding hand is a matter of special trust and mission.

Nor are they alone in any of this. Most who participate with them in the thick we -- employees, boards, advisors and others -- esteem and respect the specialness and honor of the founder and entrepreneur -- the life giver of the organization.

All of which makes the opportunity for the second gift of life the more extraordinary one. Founders are human. They age and tire. Or, circumstances and change outrun the founder's creative energy and fire. Or, both.

Consider, then, the Boys Choir of Harlem -- the magnificent dream brought to life by Walter Turnbull whose efforts were well described when he won the Heinz Award:

"Dr. Turnbull himself has traveled a long and difficult road. From the fields of the South where he chopped cotton as a child, to graduating with honors in classical music and vocal performance from Mississippi's Tougaloo College, Dr. Turnbull eventually settled in New York City where he hoped for a career as an opera tenor. But that professional ambition was sidetracked when he took a job teaching music in Harlem to support himself. There he discovered that despite the lure of the streets and unstable home lives, "music caused kids to focus." Thus, the idea for the Boys Choir of Harlem was born.

It began 30 years ago, when he gathered 20 youngsters in the basement of Ephesus Church.... Dr. Turnbull's infectious enthusiasm, his dedication, and his relentless enforcement of discipline paid handsome dividends.... By the end of 1979, both a touring choir and the Girls Choir of Harlem had been established.

The desire to prove that children from Harlem could succeed academically propelled Dr. Turnbull to create the Choir Academy of Harlem, opened in 1986 as an on-site school serving grades 4 through 8. The program was refined and expanded over the years, until today it is a co-educational, college preparatory school offering grades 4 through 12 to over 500 students. Similar choir academy programs are being established in Detroit, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Chicago, each with advisory support from New York.

Dr. Turnbull specializes in more than cultivating the love of music in children, he is equally dedicated to turning lives around. He and the Choir give at-risk youths a chance to succeed, an opportunity many of them might never have had without Dr. Turnbull's love and commitment. Most are from single-parent households receiving some type of government assistance. But the Choir teaches these youngsters to walk with pride and to hold their heads high, regardless of their circumstances. Dr. Turnbull has commented, "It's not just about the Choir. It's about discipline. It's about feeling good about yourself. That's hope."

Walter Turnbull received this honor in 1998 -- about the time, as the award describes, that the growth and future of the Boys Choir was filled with possibilities of expansion. That 'best future', though, was going to demand stepped up organizational and leadership skills ranging from development and fundraising to marketing, education, strategic alliances and finance.

All of which meant that even as Turnbull was being deservedly honored by Heinz, he confronted the second 'life-giving' moment. And, unlike the first, this moment for him -- like all founders and entreprenuers - was filled with contradictory instead of reinforcing energy. The "best future" for Boys Choir was not a future best led by Turnbull. This was not 'win/win' in that sense.

It was - and is for all founders and entrprenuers -- win/win in a very different sense. By letting go, by passing leadership onto others, the founder simultaneously gives second life to the organization and a very new and different kind of life to him or herself: the opportunity to seek new meaning and new possibilities unconnected and unconstrained by the organization. In giving second life to organizations by letting go, founders give second and new lives to themselves that are fresh and exciting because truly new.

Or, like Turnbull evidently chose, founders can turn their backs on new life for themselves and their organizations. Whether out fear of the unknown in their own life, or pride that will not let go, founders can condemn themselves and their organizations to the dead hand of grasping at a best past now gone by.

When this happens, things fall apart. None of which means the organization must die with the founder. But all of which means the founder's choice has cast the organization into a wilderness from which, quite often, only a new 'founder' with win/win energy, creativity and dreams might -- might -- save it.

Posted by Doug Smith on December 26, 2005 12:52 PM | Permalink

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