Apr 24, 2013

ADHD: Prescription for Leadership Success?

Is it possible that Attention Deficit Disorder and its energetic twin, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, can be leadership assets, or are these conditions always prescriptions for career failure?

"With the disorganization, procrastination and inability to focus, and all the other bad things that come with ADD, there also come creativity and the ability to take risks," JetBlue founder David Neeleman said in an interview with ADDitude magazine. "I can distill complicated facts and come up with simple solutions. 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," Neeleman said.

"Because I have a tendency to wander, I never spent much time in my office,” Kinkos founder Paul Orfaela told the magazine. “My job was going store to store, noticing what people were doing right. If I had stayed in my office all the time, I would not have discovered all those wonderful ideas to help expand the business."

Neeleman and Orfaela are extraordinary entrepreneurs. What about the average leader?

“People who have really severe ADHD, who haven’t gotten the right treatment, aren’t those that are in the successful positions. It’s different in that way than from a narcissistic tendency where people might rise high in organizations and then the pathology manifests itself on a broad level,” said Warren Kinghorn, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. “ADHD has taken root in the culture and people talk about themselves as ADHD or identify with a disposition toward ADHD. That may or may not mean that they actually have it. It may just mean that they associate with a kind of type.”

Successful leaders have either figured out how to manage their ADHD or they don’t meet the diagnostic criteria for it, added Allan Josephson, M.D., director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Services at The University of Louisville, Kentucky. “ADHD can often be merged or confused with energy and drive,” he said. “One of the hallmarks of ADHD is distraction. It’s hard to get tasks done when you’re flitting around. People who are hyper and are multi-tasking could have some entrepreneurial success, but I wouldn’t call it ADHD. … If they have the real thing, then it needs to be treated with medication and behavioral strategies.”

Indeed, a working paper published by Yale School of Public Health professor Jason Fletcher in January 2013 says children with ADHD are 10-14 percent less likely to be employed as adults, and those who are employed earn 33 percent less income than people who don’t have ADHD.

Another new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that “nearly 30 percent of those with childhood ADHD still have the condition as adults” and these adults have much higher rates of accidental and suicide death in their 20s, as well as higher rates of mental illness and substance abuse.

People do not develop the disorder as adults, Josephson explained. Instead, the core attention deficit may stay with them throughout life, but some learn to manage the hyperactivity as they get older.

“There’s a certain emotional, psychological maturity that helps one control those impulses or the results of the inattention,” he said. “Successful people build in correctives. One of the best correctives is a functioning marriage, a spouse who says, ‘I wouldn’t take that on; you’re not focused.’”

In his interview with ADDitude, Neeleman said he doesn’t take medication for his ADD, but uses other strategies to manage it.

“When you’re engaged in a task which requires attention, make sure that you have no distractions. Clean your mental desk, if you will. Cut down background noise and if you’re trying to learn something, go about in structured way,” advised Josephson. “If you’re going to multi-task, be careful because it can feed into the problem. ... Do things one at a time.”

Getting matched with the right tasks is vital to success as well, he said, as is having support staff who can handle organization and help with follow-through. Medication can mean the difference between success and failure for some people, both psychiatrists agreed.

“Stimulants that treat ADHD can help to sharpen attention to allow for more sustained focusing on either a conversation, or a text, or a social context. And so, even though they are stimulant medications that you would expect would cause people to feel more jittery and less able to focus, people can actually experience a dramatically increased ability to focus in their daily activitities,” said Kinghorn.

Psychologist Shane Perrault offers “7 Habits of Highly Successful Entrepreneurs with ADHD” in an article at Psychology Today. His advice includes employing an ADHD coach to help strategize and a nutritionist to assist with a healthy eating plan. What tips would you add, if you or someone you love has adult ADD or ADHD?


*Note: This is part two of our series on psychological pathologies in leadership. Part I is "Leading From Psychological Brokenness." 


Image by Tim Miller. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Christine A. Scheller.

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