“How My ADHD Makes Me a More Dynamic, Resourceful, Passionate Leader”
I am spirited — even frantic sometimes. I strike gold in the 11th hour. I jump off the highest cliffs. And all of these qualities make me a better leader to my teammates at work. They also expose some serious ADHD weaknesses, which is where my teammates get my back.
OK, you’re not a Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Albert Einstein, or Walt Disney. But you’ve got at least one superpower. One of my colleagues can remember the birthdays (and start dates) of everyone on our team. Another can look at a spreadsheet and spot the rogue formula. Finding my superpower was… complex.
“How can you run a multi-million-dollar business and not remember to close the curtains when it gets dark?” “How can you coach senior executives on time management and then forget to show up to your own birthday event?!”
Some days I can’t find my keys, work boots, or phone. Until a few years ago, that was most days. They’ve turned up the next morning in the door (keys), laundry basket (boots), and fridge (phone). This was my normal. Now I know it’s not consistently usual for others.
A few years ago, at the behest of my long-suffering partner, I spoke to a psychologist. A short while later I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and my world changed (or at least my understanding of it did). Books and articles, YouTube, CBT, and medication certainly all helped. Still, it took a while to fully accept that I wasn’t broken, mentally ill, lazy, or “making it up” (as I’d been told by various people).
In my early career, I found myself attracted to very complex, fast-paced, and difficult roles — change programs, business turnarounds, cross-border positions. The more complex the issue or issues, the more exciting and challenging the role — and the more I enjoyed it… for a while.
After a couple of years (well, maybe just one year if I’m honest) I would get very, very bored. Those complex challenges became a series of singular, repetitive issues. I would seek out the next dopamine hit – the next difficult job. Sometimes this involved an internal move or taking on a new project, but often I moved to a new company, city, or country.
With a little awareness, I’m now able to understand my drive and reactions better and can more actively manage my strong need for stimulation, excitement, and complexity.
Which brings me back full circle: ADHD is my superpower. It has driven me to take career risks and tough assignments — and to constantly learn. Even when I want an easy life, I can’t get there.
The positive ADHD traits that have influenced my career are:
- Problem solving & creativity – More than a few times, my non-linear and intuitive thought process has contributed to fast and innovative decision making. I need to see things from ‘above’ and make them simple – this often helps to highlight the solution to the issue.
- Hyperfocus – at peak times in projects or on tight deadlines, I often find myself extremely focused. I can go for days at a time with little sleep or food, and I always get the task across the line when it counts.
- High energy – my excited (slightly frantic) approach can be an attractive quality for teams. Energy is a strong driver at the start of a program. As the work becomes more routine and mundane, I work hard to keep the energy visible for the team and for my own motivation.
- Risk taking – that dopamine craving does drive risk-taking behavior. When done in a structured, thoughtful, and appropriate way, those risks bring with them a huge upside.
Like everyone else, I have gaps. These “areas for development” are often the flipside of my strengths:
- Inconsistency – I used to admit to terrible attention to detail. That’s not quite true. I can be very, very attentive to detail when I’m in a state of focus. The challenge is that I can’t always control when that focus comes, and I can be highly inconsistent. Consistently inconsistent, as they say!
- Memory – I recently blanked on the name one of own of my direct team members. I was advocating for them with the Group CEO and clean forgot their name. This is all too common and a particular issue when you work in HR roles – for some reason, colleagues expect you to master a whole company of names!
- Boredom – I’m now very aware of my need for excitement and stress. I’m also aware that good work includes a lot of routine, mundane activity and good health requires alleviation from constant stress. Boredom is never far away, and burnout is a real risk.
- Risk taking – For all the upside of taking risks, risky decisions (taken for the adrenaline hit, and not for a thoughtful return) is a potential outcome. I know I need to understand my reasons for making risk-taking decisions: is it a considered risk or am I seeking a short-term fix for my neurotransmitters?!
Enjoy and leverage your talents, and find ways to fill the gaps that my ‘dark side’ leaves. In my career, I’ve been lucky enough to build teams and hire direct reports who can mitigate my weaknesses – whether it’s bringing consistency and attention to detail, logical and linear thinking, or more structure.
Those of us with ADHD don’t succeed despite our condition, we succeed by leveraging its unique characteristics.