Doubters, naysayers, unscrupulous investors, and competitors — entrepreneurs are used to battling all kinds of demons.
But it’s the obstacles and enemies closest to you that blindside and derail your entrepreneurial success. They come in the form of a friendly co-worker or someone in a position of influence. While appearing to help you, they are actually subverting your success. This happens so often there’s a name for it: It’s called Salieri Syndrome.
Anton Salieri is the rival composer vividly depicted in the movie Amadeus. Salieri is seething with envy at Mozart’s talent, genius and potential for success. He is one of a small handful of musicians with enough savvy to appreciate Mozart’s extraordinary talent. Instead of helping, Salieri thwarts Mozart’s destiny in every way possible. He poses as a friend, a confidante, a helper, and a mentor — all the while, subverting Mozart and subtly undermining his efforts to succeed.
Salieris are mildly talented people in larger organizations in a position to help you — but instead they undermine your success.
Whether by devious intention or by clueless incompetence, Salieris can slowly destroy your business, your potential, and your spirit. They are experts in killing ideas without being identified as the assassin.*
Salieris don’t overtly undermine the entrepreneur, they merely delay, deflect, and deceive. They cause the entrepreneur to expend critical time and energy on futile activities.
Salieris in the Midst
Salieris are dangerous because they seem like allies, fans, and helpers, so your guard is down. They have just a little power — not because of their own accomplishments — but because of a position they hold inside an organization. They are gatekeepers with access to resources, connections and opportunities.
Entrepreneurs encounter these subtle Salieris daily. They look like :
- The big company manager who befriended you in 4 meetings and implies that he wants to be your first customer.
- The Angel who wants to invest along with his friends, but just needs a few more pieces of information.
- The economic development manager in charge of an accelerator, or funding program or competition.
- The engineering manager who doesn’t want to release the initial product because the technology might have a few flaws.
- The cofounder who is supposed to be locked-in-sync with your vision, but has their own agenda.
These Salieris never say ‘no’; in fact — they say ‘yes’ a lot, and then go silent or disappear. They give hope and a dopamine-induced thrill of the potential sale or funding — only to have something fall apart later. You know they have Salieri Syndrome when you see the following behavior, again and again:
- Ghosting — unreturned emails, or emails returned too late.
- Gating — of resources/information and introducing new obstacles.
- Gaslighting — remembering conversations and commitments differently than they really were.
- Delaying — until all momentum is lost and you have to start over.
- Deferring — introducing unexpected decision makers who need to be convinced.
- Detailing — constantly asking for more detail, more documentation, before proceeding to the next step.
- Defecting — working with or talking with your competition, after your initial meeting — without ever telling you.
The problem is that you don’t always know right away if a Salieri is undermining you. Sure, ‘No single raindrop believes it’s responsible for the flood’ — but each one of their actions add up to disaster for entrepreneurs.
3 Ways to Counter Salieri Syndrome
1- Beware and Be Aware
Without being paranoid or cynical, engage with the Salieri — but resist the allure of their attention and flattery. Flattery makes you prone to over-sharing information, and often lures the entrepreneur to spending more time with the Saleri at the expense of other opportunities. Never put all your eggs in one Salieri.
2 — Be Specific and Get Specifics
Often entrepreneurs walk away from a Salieri meeting thinking there’s agreement on a specific path and next steps — only to later discover Salieri heard it differently or forgot all about it.
The best way to avoid this disappointment is to get Salieri to agree to specifics:
- “So you are saying that once we get buy-in from Jim the Engineering Manager, you can generate a purchase order within 2–3 days?”
- Confirm via email: “Great, let me send you an email right now summarizing what we just discussed, to remind us when it’s time to follow up”
- Confirm further: “Are there any other steps or issues that might delay us?”
If after one or two opportunities they don’t follow through, then you know you’re working with a Salieri. It might seem like paranoia or overkill but it will either confirm your understanding, or uncover their slippery behavior.
3 — Share Some Glory
Remember, what Salieri craves most of all is involvement, acknowledgement of their own talents, and praise for their own power and position. Find a way to have them share in your potential success and in the excitement of your journey. Make them feel important. What Salieris want most of all is to BE Mozart — without the genius or hard work.
“Great spirits have always encountered opposition from mediocre minds.”
― Albert Einstein
Salieri declares himself “the patron saint of mediocrities.” He is insanely resentful that he will never achieve greatness and dedicates his energies to impeding Mozart’s success. Unlike the movie Amadeus, the conscious, calculating Salieri is rare in business. Most of the time it is just their natural way of operating stifling innovation under the guise of being helpful.
If you’re an entrepreneur you’ll meet many people infected with Salieri Syndrome. They’ll be in a position to help you or hurt you. Beware and beware. Don’t let them block your inner Mozart.
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