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Individual Leadership and Management

I was diagnosed with ADHD in my late teens. Although the diagnosis — at that time — wasn’t much more than “he has trouble focusing,“ at least I knew from an early age that something was different about my brain.

Because I’m very open about my ADHD. A lot of people in my network will reach out to me privately when they receive their own late adult ADHD diagnosis. They just want to talk.

For them, it is a profound moment, where so much of their life comes into focus. Things that previously didn’t make sense and felt like personal failings, all of a sudden have a new context.

This new clarity that can unleash positive but often many more negative emotions as a person may begin to question their entire identity. They question what is their true personality versus what was just a mask or a byproduct of their unique neurotype.

Meanwhile, whether someone is just discovering their diagnosis or has known for years, their managers and leaders (often neurotypical) may be painfully oblivious about the needs or someone who is neurodivergent. This leads to aggravating existing traumas or creating an environment that people fail to feel safe in. This, in turn, drags the team down.

Today, let’s look at the system of work, and the roles of individual leaders and managers.

The Standard Model

grayscale photo of people in a street

Here’s the standard model….

Leaders think it’s their job to bring on and nurture A players, while cutting the dead weight, in order to lead their companies to improved results and increased profits.

Managers think it’s their job to standardize and optimize their processes and teams in order to improve results and advance the company’s strategy.

Failure to assimilate will be met with harsh punishment.


In order for this model to work, we have to believe in two fairy tales.

  1. that everyone has exactly the same opportunity to succeed, complete with shared advantages and obstacles.
  2. that those who work the hardest or are the smartest will succeed and thrive while those who do not are deserving of failure.

Obviously, Brad from the wealthy suburb, who was afforded private tutors, attended an elite private university, and then interned for free at one of his father’s friend’s company is going to have a different way of carrying himself, advocating for himself, or adapting to the standard environment than someone from a marginalized community who is carrying student debt, working through school, and hailing from a neighborhood with less access to resources.

Unfortunately, conscious or unconscious adherence to the belief in these fairy tales precede the statement:

“why can’t they just…?”

There is often an implied expectation that everyone can do everything asked of them simply because they were instructed to and being paid to do it. Further, failure to comply or succeed is a personal failing or trait of deliberate insubordination.


Picture of a person having a moment of realization
Midjourney Prompt: “the moment of realization, oil painting, rennaissance”

In my experience speaking with leaders and managers, and sharing about my own neurodivergence, I often see a light bulb turn on. They have a moment of clarity, where they realize that not everyone in their office is exactly the same. They realize that some people struggle with things that they, themselves, do not.

It is a simple realization brought about by learning about one single element that deviates from the standard culture based on white, western, patriarchal, neurotypical, capitalist values, or to use the catchall term: white supremacy. Unsurprisingly, it is often only after hearing it explained from a white, cis-gender man that the realization takes place.

Once they understand that a person with ADHD cannot “try harder” their way out of executive dysfunciton anymore than a diabetic can turn on insulin regulation by trying harder, they arrive at a cross road. Do they continue moving forward as they have been, or do they slow down and reconsider the path forward?

What comes next, is important.

Integration or Assimilation

a woman changing from who she is into something else.
Midjourney Prompt: faces, multi-color, camouflage, chameleon, assimilation, 8k, cyberpunk

Unfortunately, the common response to an epiphany about difference is to brush it off and demand compliance and assimilation into the dominant culture anyway. It feels like less work when you don’t have to change anything.

Rather than create accommodations, they may look to find legal methods to replace someone. This can include discrimination such as setting them up to fail with job responsibilities they obviously won’t be able to complete due to their disability. It could also include clever and subtle hiring discrimination to leave neurodivergent people off of the short list.

In rare cases, there are leaders and managers who care about human beings more than they do profits and corporate objectives. In those cases, we find something rare: accommodations. These are the leaders and managers who understand there is a difference in each person’s needs and they actively manage for the individual, looking to find ways to mitigate circumstances that disable or marginalize them, while looking for opportunities for them to thrive. These managers see the benefit of integrating someone onto the team.

The better model

Here’s my suggestion for a better model over the standard one…

Leaders are accountable for creating a safe space for everyone. Safety means the freedom to be themselves and bring their unique skills and deficits to the table without fear of punishment.

Managers are accountable for managing the individual rather than trying to get everyone to fit into a single system. This means providing accommodations to each person according to their needs rather than worrying about some abstract idea of “fairness.”

Fairness, is the excuse born of the idea that if everyone is expected to perform the same then everyone is afforded the exact same accommodations. Once you realize different people need different things, that argument goes out the window.

Brains, Circumstances, etc

But here’s the big point, if you can see any of this making sense for people who are neurodivergent, then you should be able to see how anything that is a deviation from the dominant culture can open a person up to discrimination, marginalization, or disability. The machine wants standard parts, and it doesn’t want to slow down for your differences.

People don’t choose to be neurodivergent, or trans, or gay/lesbian, or black, or disabled, or depressed, or sick. All of us, are unique individuals with unique circumstances, advantages, and disadvantages. All of these factors can be traced back through that person’s entire lifetime and across their unique biology.

Even with the emergence of smarter and smarter AI, people still do the majority of work at companies. The assembly line model of work is not applicable in all companies or industries, especially in today’s world of knowledge work with access to remote work technology.

Courage and Hard Work

Midjourney Prompt: a feminine male lion, 8k

For all of the propaganda about hard work in this country, the real hard work being ignored is what it really takes to be kind and empathetic. It’s so much easier to ignore people’s needs, to avoid customizing your approach to each person because quite frankly, it’s hard, and often emotionally draining.

Few leaders and managers seem to have the courage to care enough about each individual, to trust each individual, and to create the safety required for each person to thrive.

If we really want to alleviate suffering in the workplace, reduce our frustration as leaders and managers or as workers within these systems, and create the environments where people innovate and thrive, then we need to change our priorities.

  • We need Leaders who create systems that put safety as a priority.
  • We need Managers who are willing to do the hard work of putting care first.
  • We need cultures that accommodate people’s needs.

Whether we’re talking about letting neurodivergent people wear headphones or work from home, parents have a flex schedule, or people wear the clothes or hairstyles they choose, we can do this. Not only will we dramatically improve the quality of people’s lives, we’ll be more innovative, more collaborative, and have the resilience to weather downturns in the market.

We just have to manage for the individual and dig deep to do the work of caring.

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