Further Confessions of a Neurodivergent Leader
In this second part of a two-part series, an IT service and support thought leader talks about his life with autism.
This is part two of a two-part series on one IT service and support leader’s experience as an autistic individual in the workplace. To read the first part, click here.
Confession #6: I am capable of leading because each of you teach me well.
I haven’t always been the capable and effective leader I am today. Far from it in fact! Early in my career I had little patience and too short a temper – often lapsing into the proverbial “bull in the China shop” and “my way or the highway” type of manager. Not grasping the human element of leading, I rarely praised and often criticized. Simply to gather more information about something, I would openly challenge my own leaders in a way that I failed to understand was perceived as defiant.
I had a virtually unfiltered quick wit – in both senses of the word. Regardless of the situation, I’d come up with a really funny comment in the blink of an eye – that would often cut to the quick because I didn’t bother to worry about who it would hurt or how. In fact, I didn’t even grasp that it would be hurtful. To me it was just important to use humor to drive home my point because I took the elicited laughter to be a positive response.
I recall one time when I sent out an email to a wide internal audience. It was funny but dripping with sarcasm about some recent policy changes. It got a lot of laughs and several replies commenting how spot-on it was. The following day my director called me into his office as I was passing by. He looked me square in the eye and said firmly but without anger, “You’re a bright guy, Doug. Use your powers for good not for evil. Think before you act, speak, or send anything.” That moment was a turning point for me.
When I reflect on it, I’m reminded of an episode of The Office when Michael gets in trouble for forwarding off-color emails. When his boss, Jan, pays a visit, he tells her, “The problem is that I am the boss and apparently I can’t say anything.” She replies, “Well, that… that’s true in a way. You can’t say anything.” Perplexed and a bit flustered, Michael replies, “Where’s the line? Where’s the line, Jan?” It was almost a throwaway line, but I hope Michael Scott learned as much that day as I did from my director that day.
From that point forward, I learned to observe others carefully and closely so I know where that line lies. One of the things in which I’m not particularly naturally gifted is empathy – putting myself in the shoes of others. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time over the course of my career observing how people react in a variety of situations. What triggers negative reactions? What enables positive ones? And I work tirelessly and consciously to minimize those negative scenarios while maximizing the positive ones. Ironically, by doing so I’m often perceived as being one of the more empathetic leaders that my team members have ever worked with. But I wouldn’t be that way if not for having learned how from watching others.
Confession #7: I have inner conversations, not just an inner voice or dialogue.
Imagine going through each day carefully weighing everything you say before you say it – that’s my reality. Having really taken to heart that I need to carefully weigh how others will interpret what I communicate, I now virtually playact in my mind from the perspective of others before I go forward.
I’ve honed this to be a pretty rapid skill, but just imagine how many times I go through that exercise each day. From an action perspective, I’m deliberate in trying to model the behaviors that I want my team to exhibit. From a written communication standpoint, with each email I send I carefully review the recipient list and put myself in the shoes of each and read it from their perspective before sending. I take equal care in the wording I use when I speak to others. Before I utter a sentence, I mull it over in my mind how the listeners will take it. This alone can be exhausting!
Confession #8: I’ve learned how to identify talent to align with my abilities, and compensate for my shortcomings.
One thing that I learned early in my career is to know myself – what I am and am not good at. My ASD gives me the ability to focus almost exclusively on a given topic of interest to develop nearly encyclopedic knowledge. I’ve done this throughout my life – not just my career – meaning I have a depth and breadth of understanding of multiple topics that I can leverage in different circumstances. I am also able to recall specific events in my mind’s eye with perfect clarity – even years later – as if I’m viewing a film. In addition, I can quickly assess current situations and envision opportunities for improvements by drawing on imaginative unconventional solutions. I have an uncanny ability to put together succinct presentations that appeal to and persuade an audience in a context that is important to them. I’ve also discovered that the way I speak naturally reinforces central elements of a message, because I unconsciously stress key points by repeating them several times. These are a few of my ASD superpowers.
Conversely, I have offsetting weaknesses – my kryptonite. Inertia is more pronounced for me than for most neurotypical people. Although I’m not obsessive about things, I am compulsive. Once I undertake something, I want to keep doing it. As soon as I stop, it completely falls off my radar and is very difficult to resume. One of my strengths – hyperfocus on a given topic – is also a weakness in that I frequently lose interest in things before seeing them through to completion.
I had no less than five majors in college, because as soon as I proved to myself that I could do something as well as anyone I’d want to explore something else. I also am challenged in focusing when there are external distractions, especially background conversations. My mind cannot focus and keeps leaping between conversations.
To deal with my own weaknesses, I approach teambuilding unlike many leaders who surround themselves with an echo chamber. I populate my teams with people who possess complementary strengths that offset my own weaknesses. I actively seek people who are adept at daily operations, administration, and reporting because those things utterly fail to capture and hold my attention. To me the steady state is ultimate boredom.
I also actively recruit from a diversity perspective – not because I’m a neurodiverse person. I want to ensure that my teams avoid organizational blind spots to the greatest degree possible. Diversity of all kinds ensures that diverse viewpoints, experiences, and perspectives are represented. Finally, I encourage my team members to challenge not only the status quo, but also to challenge projects or initiatives in progress. One of my often-repeated phrases is, “Don’t suffer in silence.” Another is, “Let’s blow holes in our project before someone else does.”
Confession #9: I am no different today than I was yesterday… or will be tomorrow.
Over the last twenty years I’ve learned how to manage my condition. I’m not seeking pity, nor am I personally asking for any accommodation. If I need help with something, I’ll ask – just like I’ve always done. The only difference is that now you know when before you didn’t. Treat me the same as you always have.
Confession #10: I am undoubtedly not the only neurodivergent person you know. I may now just be the only one that you know that you know.
We are among you – whether you know it or not. There is a place for us to work with you. Just like any neurotypical person, we have individual strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps my admission wil make it easier for someone else to “come out” as ND who you’ve perhaps thought always acted a little quirky. Perhaps it will lead someone who you’d never have suspected to reveal that they are neurodivergent.
In either case, don’t be surprised. Be supportive. Be accepting. We do have feelings – we just may not process them the same way you do. This April and throughout the year remember Autism Acceptance.
As Nathaniel Branden once said, “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.”