When a third-generation Mormon from Utah announced to the New York media that he wanted his upstart airline to be the city’s “new low-fare, hometown airline,” most discounted him as incredibly naive. But with the founding of JetBlue—and the introduction of in-flight TV and exceptional customer service—David Neeleman not only made good on this vision but upended the commercial aviation industry in the process.

And all this with (or, perhaps, because of) ADHD.

In an interview with ADDitude Magazine, Neeleman recognized that his ADHD gave him distinct advantages. “I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions,” he said. “I can look out on an industry with all kinds of problems and say, ‘How can I do this better?’ My ADD brain naturally searches for better ways of doing things.”

Though he acknowledges the downside, including an inability to focus, increased disorganization, and procrastination (“I have an easier time planning a 20-aircraft fleet than I do paying the light bill.”), Neeleman has embraced his unique experience of the world. “If someone told me you could be normal or you could continue to have your ADD, I would take ADD.”

In our pursuit of effective leadership, we often find ourselves inspired by those who possess extraordinary talents and perspectives. Why should it be any different when those talents and perspectives come from someone whose brain is wired just a little differently than our own? Neurodiverse leaders have the potential to revolutionize leadership and drive organizational success. By embracing their unique brilliance, we open doors to diverse perspectives, unparalleled creativity, and innovative problem-solving.

What is neurodiversity?

The term “neurodiversity” refers to a broad range of differences in the ways our brains work—the naturally occurring diversity of how we’re hardwired to think and experience the world. While neurodiversity includes diagnosable conditions, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, it’s important not to get hung up on labels. Everyone processes information differently, and the truth is, there is no single, “standard” brain.

For leadership coaches, it’s essential to see the variety of neurological differences present in leaders for the vast array of strengths and abilities it represents. Neurodiversity in our leaders doesn’t indicate limitations to overcome, but incredible value to unlock for teams and organizations of all kinds.

How Neurodiverse Leaders Lead

How often do managers challenge their employees to think outside the box? Innovation is a calling card of the modern workplace, and neurodivergent individuals often possess unique lenses through which they view the world. With thinking patterns inherently different from those of neurotypical individuals, these leaders excel at spotting patterns, connections, and solutions that may elude others.

Many neurodiverse leaders have a natural inclination toward exploration. It’s no surprise, then, that some of the most successful and well-known entrepreneurs and thought leaders in recent history consider themselves part of one or more neuroidentity group. Famous examples include billionaire business icon Richard Branson, climate activist Greta Thunberg, and IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad—all of whom attribute their success, at least in part, to the unique ways their brains work.

So, how can coaches best help neurodiverse leaders reach their full potential? Better coaching will result from better understanding. Leadership coach and certified Leadership Circle practitioner Brooke Trenwith has written a guide to help coaches understand the impact of neurodiversity on leaders and leadership, and navigate the coaching relationship with leaders who identify as neurodivergent.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Listen to your leader and respect their terminology.
    “Neurodiverse.” “Gifted.” “Autistic.” “On the spectrum.” “ADHDer.” There are a lot of terms out there. Remember, your role as a coach is not to diagnose the person or to “correct” their terms; your role is to support and encourage them, and to introduce them to new ways of leveraging their abilities.
  2. Ask questions to bring out the positive.
    Unfortunately, many neurodiverse people have past school and work experiences that focus on the challenges of their cognitive differences instead of the potential in them. If a leader tells you they’re dyslexic or that they have ADHD, ask them how that trait enhances their leadership and reinforce the positive outcomes they may be hesitant to acknowledge.
  3. Pay attention to context clues.
    Not all neurodivergent leaders are comfortable talking about—or are even fully aware of—their neurodiversity. Be on the lookout for masking behaviors, actions that suppress one’s natural inclinations in an effort to “fit in.” These can take many forms, such as biting nails, tapping, walking on toes, chewing hair, etc., and can show up “live” in interactions with your leader or in comments on the Leadership Circle Profile. Either way, they’re important conversation starters that help get to the heart of your leader’s challenges.
  4. Look for strategies, not solutions.
    Neurodiverse people do not need to be “fixed.” When coaching a neurodivergent leader, help them identify strategies to manage their challenges, not solutions to fix their problems. This is an important distinction to reinforce that their unique behaviors are a natural part of who they are and not character flaws, and will enable them to create workable habits and set realistic expectations.

By embracing neurodiversity in our leaders, we help foster a more inclusive, more creative environment, one that drives innovation, welcomes unconventional ideas, and is capable of transforming the way business is done.

Sarah Stall

Author Sarah Stall

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