We hear a lot of tales about neurodiversity and leadership – 35% of US entrepreneurs are dyslexic and ADHD-ers are twice as likely as peers to start a business after graduating college. We have some high profile examples like the founders of IKEA and Jet Blue, who credit their success to ADHD. However, we also know that entrepreneurship doesn’t automatically translate into management skill. Like the consummate professional who is promoted to team manager and fails, the skills required to initiate and the skills require to sustain and grow are not the same. ADHD is well suited to entrepreneurship and not as easily to CEO. I should know – this is exactly my transition over the past 10 years! I’m going to let you in to a few secrets to help you understand your ADHD boss, or become a better one if you have ADHD yourself.
The ADHD Profile
The key thing to remember about ADHD is that the brain is behaving differently. ADHD is defined by having a lower amount of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline). These determine our behavior in slightly conflicting ways. Dopamine makes you feel satisfied. If you don’t have much of it, you are constantly on the lookout for something new and stimulating to satiate your desire. Lack of dopamine is why ADHD-ers are driven, enthusiastic, creative. However that is exhausting! And it leads to restlessness, insomnia and the kind of hyperactivity you see in kids who have been allowed to stay up way past their bedtime. This is why stimulant medication works for us, it helps us feel satisfied, so we can focus on one thing rather than constantly seeking something new.
Norepinephrine on the other hand is part of our stress management system. Along with epinephrine, it is released when we are under pressure. A moderate amount stimulates the pre-frontal cortex where we pay attention and think sharply through options in a pressured scenario. Too much is overwhelming, too little means we aren’t aroused by threat in the same way as others.
What this means is that ADHD brains are simultaneously hyper-vigilant and under-reacting to pressure. We are over responsive to innovation and don’t panic at risk. In fact, a little risk tops our norepinephrine levels up to the ‘moderate’ zone, where we think at our best. The perfect combination for entrepreneurship and presumably part of the reason that the human species keeps us in the gene pool – you wouldn’t want all members of the tribe like this, but up to 10% keeps everyone on their toes and the arc of human progress maintains course.
Feisty And Fun Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin
Day to day, these neurological differences can make us ADHD-ers very feisty colleagues. Some have said that they find it hard to keep up with me and that I lack patience. I can also find it difficult to keep my passion under control – when I am feeling positive this is engaging and motivating but when there is a problem the same vivaciousness is frustrating. As a female I am further bound by gender norms and I am acutely aware that without even raising my voice I can come across as aggressive when I feel strongly about something. I’m a dual US/UK citizen who currently resides in the UK where my ADHD/American propensity for a “hell yeah” is overwhelming for my more English colleagues who find it insincere. Moderating my engagement and dopamine levels to ‘feel satisfied’ in these scenarios has been the subject of a lifetime’s personal development for me. However, despite the many hours of coaching and the sheer force of willpower that I apply to contain myself each day, I am sometimes still seen as ‘scary’. Constant containment comes at a cost. While I can occasionally medicate, this is not an exact science and I am limited in the amount I can change myself to fit the social norms. Bossing while ADHD is like trying to pick up one hundred bouncy balls in a park full of puppies – hilariously fun but inevitably some things escape.
When I am working at my best, the energies align and the full power is engaged in a clear direction. In order to work at my best I need to not be distracted; when my attention is split in too many directions I don’t do anything well. I need a team around me whom I can trust to collect their own loose threads and do their thing to the best of their ability. Dr Helen Taylor’s Complementary Cognition Theory relates the neurodiversity variation in our species to optimization of specialist thinking skills. My core team of leaders at Genius Within are not all like me. In fact, a few of them are the opposite. We make it work by respecting each other’s strengths and forgiving each other’s weaknesses. We take ownership and apologise when we go too far (in the ADHD case) or maybe not far enough (in the non-ADHD case)! As Judy Singer says, “neurodiversity doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry,” and it’s not a Pollyanna concept. It’s a tricky balance, working with people who are not like you and getting it right together. There will be days when you all wish each other would ‘just get it’ and you feel like you’re having to explain things that should be obvious. We sometimes get defensive and we have to work on that. What powers me and my long time collaborators through, is respect and trust for each other born out of the successes we’ve honed along the journey.
ADHD might lead to good ideas, initiatives and action, but for me, to run my business I also need steadfastness, unflappableness, detail orientation, and process-driven minds to balance the team. There’s a bit of a cult around leadership in modern economies. We place leaders on a pedestal and when they fall short of perfection it’s seen as a crushing failure – even more so as women. But ADHD bosses know we are not perfect, and we’ve probably put as much effort into trying as is humanly possible. So instead of trying to be maintain the mirage we build trusted teams to minimize our shortcomings. I’ve always thought that if my business could only survive with me acting as chief cook and bottle washer then I haven’t succeeded yet. Over reliance on any one person – ADHD, dyslexic, autistic or neurotypical – is unhealthy and unsustainable. A mature business can maintain course if one person drops out, because the strength is in the connections and the system, not a central node. A strong leadership team is the key to all this – flexible, responsive, agile and everyone doing what they do best.
So whether you are working alongside an ADHD boss or are the ADHD boss in question, surviving and thriving is a matter of finding and providing balance. Value what we do differently, rather than emulating or hiring in our own image. Find your neurotribe and succeed together rather than burn out alone.