Jim Davis, Ed.M., MA

Visionary leaders have a few things in common. They see fast and far, they are creative and ambitious, they approach problems from angles that their peers might fail to see. These buoyant, entrepreneurial spirits have another thing in common: a lot of them have ADHD (often undiagnosed).

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Continual drive to start new tasks, even when the previous task has not been finished
  • Trouble prioritizing, or feel like everything is a priority
  • Restlessness and drive to ‘do’ more
  • Find it difficult not to interject (interrupt) in conversations with something that feels extremely important

This is not a diagnosis. These are symptoms are aligned ADHD as identified by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, 2023). Don’t judge it. Don’t worry about it. Just notice it, and read on.

Alongside the exponential rise of attention-grabbing technologies, the modern workplace continues moving toward remote and hybrid settings. Even those who did not previously have ADHD tendencies are reporting them now. Nearly 50% of professionals claim that their attention span is getting worse.

And yet, ADHD can be a superpower… if you work to understand it, play to its strengths, and get support for its limitations.

Many top tier CEOs have done just that.

4 Keys for the ADHD Leader

This is by no means an exhaustive list. For more, check out the book “ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life” by Judith Kolberg and Dr. Kathleen Nadeu. These are a few proven methods to onboard.

“#ADHD can be a superpower if you work to understand it, play to its strengths, and get support for its limitations. Many top tier CEOs have done just that.”

First, do it for yourself.

If you are a leader who has struggled with ADHD, and you’re ready to make some adjustments, great. But do it for you. Organize yourself for yourself, not for others. The motivating factor behind behavioral adjustments will determine their long-term success. Self-determination is a powerful motivator. Changes influenced exclusively by external pressure never last.

When navigating ADHD, professionals often find themselves propelled by shame, a common and significant hurdle. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt occurs alongside a behavior that ought to be changed – if you insult a loved one in a moment of frustration, a little guilt is good, it will guide your behavior the next time around. Shame is deeper.

Shame is a challenge to self-worth. If you say something that hurts a loved one and your internal narrative shifts to “there’s something wrong with me; I always do this; I’m a bad person,” then you might be dealing with shame. Behavioral adjustments fueled by shame and self-critique not only feel bad, they are at best a temporary fuel. Never a lasting solution. Change can only occur in the willing – it is difficult to sustain willingness while fearing judgment. So block out the noise. If you want to make changes around your ADHD, do it for you.

Do it: Take a breath and do a quick self-check. Ask if there are adjustments that you want to make. Yes? Write them down. Let’s make them… for you. Set a healthy foundation before starting this process. The adjustments you make can benefit others (they almost certainly will), but they should align with your personal motives.

Maintain high standards, but have incremental goals.

Having ADHD does not give you a free pass. You are a high achiever. You’re a leader, you have vision and ambition and you get things done. But you, as much as anyone, need to set incremental goals. For sake of example, let’s make it small and think about the immediate workspace. Many people with ADHD have untidy desks. (Oddly enough, some people with ADHD have meticulously tidy desks, a management strategy to control an element of their surroundings.) If you want to improve your workspace, the standard can be high, but the goals should be incremental. Have a vision of what you want it to look like. Know that the overhaul won’t be immediate.

Businesses rarely go from startup to $10 million overnight. They have incremental goals. They set key performance indicators (KPIs) and quarterly expectations which are manageable and aligned with company targets. Do the same thing with your desk. Once the vision for the workspace is set, break it off into short bursts of daily progress. 20 minutes a day. Start there. When you can nail that habit, push it to 30. What might not feel like a big deal in a day can become a huge success in months or years.

Incremental goals serve as signposts along the path to something bigger. The ADHD leader, who has a knack for thinking big and fast and far, needs to break it down in to pieces. If this does not come naturally, get support.

Do it: grab a cup of coffee, find some quiet space, and create a map toward your personal goals. On a larger level, pull a team together and create professional goals as a group (this will have plenty of added benefits, including team alignment and engaging stakeholders).

Use positive self-affirmations.

It might sound cheesy, but one of the most powerful tools to combats negative self-talk is on its own terms: with positive self-talk. When you are feeling self-doubt, have a conversation with it. Are you actually a failure? Or do you just need some better habits when it comes to organizing your office? Are you slowing your company down? Or were you a few calls short of your weekly quota?

Don’t let yourself off the hook, but gain control of self-talk. It is not only good for mental health, it is also the surest way to improve performance. Again, it is impossible to sustain progress fueled by shame.

Positive self-affirmations and mantras, when practiced routinely, can have a surprisingly positive impact on behavior. I work with one executive who now swears by it. Before he goes to bed at night, and before he begins his morning commute, he writes at least 10 lines (a standard he set for himself) that begin with “I am” and finish with whatever personal strength he wants to enhance. “I am an expert communicator,” he might say. And he means it.

Do it: Start writing and see how it feels. I am confident and kind. I uphold high standards and have patience with myself as needed. It will not change your life overnight, but it has a meaningful impact.

“Having #ADHD does not give you a free pass. You are a high achiever. You’re a leader, you have vision and ambition and you get things done. But you, as much as anyone, need to set incremental goals.”

Recognize progress and reward milestones.

A common misstep for high achievers struggling with ADHD is that they want it to be ‘better’, they want to ‘solve’ their problem. It doesn’t work that way.

Recognize good habits by congratulating yourself out loud. Did you set a timer for 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to tidy up your desk? “Great job, Me.” And when you hit a streak (15 minutes per day for 5 days in a row, for example), celebrate. Treat yourself to something. Have a nice meal on Friday. Splurge on a good bottle of wine.

Don’t celebrate too hard. You don’t want to trick yourself into thinking the job’s done prematurely, but take note of these important milestones along the way. This work is not easy. It can be a long haul. Don’t let a good job go unrecognized.

Do it: Pick a task that has proven to be a challenge. Set a timer for a duration of your choosing (15-30 minutes is a good starting place) and focus exclusively on that task. If you get roped into a conversation or find yourself going in another direction, take a breath, forgive yourself, and start over.

Moving Forward

Bias toward action, folks. Give one or all of these strategies a try.

If you are looking to make some changes, be sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Maintain high standards, but set incremental goals. Use positive self-affirmations (I’m telling you, this one is more impactful than you might think). Recognize progress and reward milestones – you’re already on the journey. Mark your progress.

If you got to the bottom of this article, let us know what you think! We’ll reward your progress with a shoutout on social media (seriously). Sick with it. Many more good things to come.

James (Jim) Davis works with teams and individuals on leadership development, culture enhancement, and performance psychology. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and is a sought-after speaker, author, and coach. In 2020 he received US Marine Corps’ ‘Excellence in Leadership Award’. To work with Jim, CLICK HERE.

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