Why Founders Don’t Always Make Great CEOs

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Why Founders Don’t Always Make Great CEOs

In the entrepreneurial world, the terms “founder” and “CEO” are often used interchangeably. However, the skill sets and mindsets required for these roles are markedly different. Founders are visionaries who bring ideas to life, while CEOs are leaders who drive these ideas towards sustainable success. This article explores why founders don’t always make great CEOs and delves into the nuances of leadership roles in a business context.

The Distinct Roles of Founders and CEOs

The Visionary Nature of Founders

Founders are the lifeblood of any startup. They possess the unique ability to identify market gaps and envision innovative solutions. Their passion, creativity, and risk-taking propensity are instrumental in the early stages of a company. However, the very qualities that make them great founders can sometimes impede their effectiveness as CEOs.

Founders are often deeply attached to their original vision and may resist changes even when the market demands it. This emotional attachment can lead to rigidity, making it difficult to pivot or adapt. Furthermore, the operational demands of scaling a business often require a different skill set than those needed to launch one.

The Leadership Demands of a CEO

CEO leading a team meetingby Kenny Eliason (https://unsplash.com/@neonbrand)

A CEO’s primary role is to steer the company towards long-term success. This involves strategic planning, resource allocation, and fostering a healthy organizational culture. Unlike founders, CEOs must balance innovation with sustainability, ensuring that the business can scale efficiently.

CEOs need to be adept at stakeholder management, which includes investors, employees, and customers. They must also possess a high level of emotional intelligence to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics. This requires a shift from the founder’s often singular focus on product and vision to a more holistic approach to business management.

Key Differences Between Founders and CEOs

Leadership Styles

Founders often lead by inspiration and vision. Their leadership style is typically informal and driven by passion. This can be highly effective in the early stages of a startup when the team is small and closely-knit.

Conversely, CEOs must adopt a more structured and strategic leadership style. They need to implement formal processes and systems to manage larger teams and ensure consistent performance. This transition from informal to formal leadership can be challenging for founders who are accustomed to a more hands-on approach.

Skill Sets

Skills of a CEOby Spencer Russell (https://unsplash.com/@spencerrussell)

The skills required to scale a company are fundamentally different from those needed to start one. Founders excel in creativity, innovation, and risk-taking. They are often generalists who wear multiple hats.

CEOs, on the other hand, need to be specialists in strategic planning, financial management, and organizational development. They must also be proficient in crisis management and decision-making under uncertainty. This specialized skill set is crucial for guiding the company through different growth phases.

Emotional Intelligence

Founders are often emotionally invested in their product or service. This passion is a double-edged sword. While it can drive relentless pursuit of success, it can also cloud judgment and hinder objective decision-making.

CEOs must exhibit high emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. These attributes are essential for managing diverse teams, resolving conflicts, and maintaining morale during challenging times.

Case Studies: When Founders Stepped Down

The Google Story

One of the most notable examples is Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders, recognized that their strengths lay in innovation and technology rather than in managing a rapidly growing global enterprise. They appointed Eric Schmidt as CEO, who brought in the necessary experience and skills to scale the company. This decision allowed Google to evolve into the tech giant it is today.

The Uber Example

Uber's office dynamicsby Alesia Kazantceva (https://unsplash.com/@alesiaskaz)

In contrast, Uber’s trajectory under Travis Kalanick highlights the pitfalls of founder-led leadership during a company’s scaling phase. Kalanick’s aggressive style and controversial decisions eventually led to his ouster. His departure marked a shift towards a more structured and sustainable approach under new leadership.

The Path Forward for Founders

Embracing Transition

For founders, recognizing the need for a leadership transition is crucial. This doesn’t necessarily mean stepping down entirely. Many successful founders transition to roles that leverage their strengths, such as Chief Innovation Officer or Board Member. This allows them to continue contributing to the company’s vision without getting bogged down by operational complexities.

Leadership Development

Leadership training sessionby Annie Spratt (https://unsplash.com/@anniespratt)

Investing in leadership development is another viable path. Founders can benefit from executive coaching, leadership training programs, and mentorship from experienced CEOs. Developing skills in strategic management, financial acumen, and emotional intelligence can bridge the gap between founder and CEO roles.

Building a Strong Leadership Team

Surrounding oneself with a strong leadership team is essential. Delegating operational responsibilities to experienced executives can free founders to focus on what they do best. A balanced leadership team can provide the stability and strategic direction needed to navigate the complexities of scaling a business.


The journey from founder to CEO is fraught with challenges. While founders are indispensable in bringing innovative ideas to life, the skill set required to scale a business demands a different approach. Recognizing and embracing these differences can lead to more effective leadership transitions and, ultimately, sustainable business success.

Founders must be willing to adapt, invest in their development, and build strong leadership teams to bridge the gap between vision and execution. By doing so, they can ensure that their entrepreneurial ventures not only survive but thrive in the long term.