What Does It Take to be a Neurodiverse Leader?

In honour of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, our CEO Sandi Wassmer shares her experiences of being a leader with ADHD.

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ADHD and leadership 

Being a neurodiverse leader, particularly one with quite severe ADHD, certainly has its challenges; given the right team and a culture of respect, openness, and curiosity, it can also be an enriching experience. 

When I was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult back in 2009, the only treatment on offer was medication, which just made matters worse. When I came off the medication, I was given no alternatives, so I went on my merry way and, over time, have found a range of techniques that work for me. This doesn’t mean that my ADHD has gone away. It just means that it is not debilitating.

However, I didn’t realise that ADHD didn’t only affect me; it affected the people around me. That is, until Michelle Davies, Service Design and Delivery Director here at enei, asked me if I had ADHD. This was the beginning of a very supportive, nurturing, and caring ongoing discussion with my direct reports about the way my ADHD affects how we work together and how we can ensure that it is never misunderstood. 

ADHD is a spectrum and affects different people differently throughout their lives. For me, the biggest obstacle is how things manifest when my brain gets full or when the information being conveyed to me doesn’t make sense, which I frequently refer to as feeling like my hair is on fire…When this happens, I simply shut down. 

In the past, I would endure this on my own and try to find my way out of it, with varying levels of success but a pretty poor hit rate. Now, with my marvellous team around me, we have found ways for them to interject and miraculously find my reset button. Like life, I suspect it will always be a work in progress, but thus far, it has been pretty transformational for all of us. 

When my brain gets full or when the information being conveyed
to me doesn’t make sense, I refer to as feeling like my hair is on fire…
When this happens, I simply shut down.  

Sandi Wassmer

The bond of trust that we had before all of this has strengthened enormously, and without it, none of this would have been possible. I have had to open myself up in a way I have never done before in the workplace and lay my vulnerabilities out for all to see. Some may call this authentic leadership, but what we have experienced together is far beyond that. We are all learning, growing, and leading together. 

The leadership that my team has shown in their ability to step in and grapple with the ADHD in the way they have is exceptional; the stress, embarrassment, and shame that I’d lived with for so many years have begun to dissipate. I really wish that I could create a formula for this, but I’m afraid it’s not that simple. 

What I know now is that I could never have done this on my own, and being a neurodiverse leader is most certainly a team effort. It requires the right people and culture, and a psychologically safe environment, where the freedom to bring your whole self to work is the expected norm.

This blog post was written by Sandi Wassmer, CEO, Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion. It was originally posted on 14 March 2022 and revised in July 2022. 

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