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Enabling Neurodiversity Through Leader Character 


One out of five people are described as neurodivergent, which means understanding and embracing neurodiversity is both a strategic and moral imperative. In fact, creativity, lateral (or nonlinear) thinking, reverse engineering to solve problems, complex visual-spatial skills, systems thinking, intuitive insights, hyperfocus, and multisensory pattern recognition are distinct areas in which neurodivergent candidates can excel, and harnessing the potential of neurodivergent individuals can help employers not only with a shortage of talent, but also with the construction of the future of work. 


Neurodiversity recognizes and celebrates the natural variation in the human brain, encompassing conditions such as ASD (autism spectrum disorder), ADD (attention deficit disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and other neurological differences. A lot has been written about embracing neurodiversity, but what is missing in the conversation is the importance of leadership character to enable it.  


Neurodiversity in the Workplace


How can we leverage the unique talents of neurodivergent individuals in workplaces? It is estimated that 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent, but unemployment rates among the neurodivergent hover around 30-40%, excluding a vast pool of talent from the workforce. Creating opportunities for neurodivergent individuals and creating inclusive cultures for neurodiversity requires strength of character from all — employers, supervisors, employees, coworkers, and the neurodivergent individuals themselves. 


What does neurodivergent leadership look like? An area in which neurodiversity and leadership have met is entrepreneurship — often because the neurodivergent individual had difficulty finding a job. Whereas some self-made entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs were able to chart their own path and lead their ventures to worldwide recognition, this isn’t the case for most. Even for leaders like Musk or Jobs, despite their brilliance in terms of innovation and original thinking, questions remain about the overall effectiveness of their leadership, particularly in their ability to work with others. We propose leader character as a foundational approach to addressing these challenges and opportunities. 


The Paradoxes of Leader Character 

Leader character has some paradoxical qualities: 

Character is universally valued, and its development is unique to the individual. 


Although the importance of character is shared across cultures, religions, and philosophical perspectives, there are often as many views about what character is as there are individuals. The time is ripe to build on the solid foundation of evidence-based research to elevate character alongside competence in education and organizations. Character is like the anatomy and physiology of the body. Once we know what it is, we can enable individuals to develop it in their unique journey. 


Each character dimension is important and each dimension on its own is not enough. 


There are eleven interconnected dimensions of leader character (see Figure 1), with judgment acting as an air traffic controller for the other ten dimensions. Understanding and embracing neurodiversity takes a high level of humility and humanity, and it’s not surprising to see how important these are to collaboration with others — the cultivation of being cooperative, collegial, open-minded, flexible, and interconnected. How can we be interconnected with another human being, though, if we haven’t developed a habit of being that allows us to relate with others who behave differently from us?  


Each character dimension needs to be developed yet excess of a dimension is detrimental.  


When not supported by the other dimensions, each of the 11 dimensions of character can operate like a vice. For example, drive without temperance (being patient, calm, composed, self-controlled, and prudent) can lead to manic activity. Lacking strength in justice or accountability is a hallmark of not stepping up to the equity, diversity, and inclusion agenda.  


We are Unique within Our Common Humanity 

While humans share common anatomical and physiological systems, including brain functions, these systems manifest differently across individuals and result in unique individuals. The same happens with the anatomy of character. Take courage: it can be observed in neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals, sometimes in different ways. A neurotypical employee may be brave when she dares to speak truth to power at work. Neurodivergent employees may be brave by showing up to work every day, knowing that their surroundings may not be friendly to their sensory systems and that coworkers may underestimate and misunderstand their abilities. Both behaviors show courage at work, expressed and manifested differently.  


It is important to remember that neurodivergent individuals may possess character strengths and competencies alongside difficulty controlling their bodies and sensory integration issues. 

Take, for instance, the concept of empathy. It's a common misconception that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) lack the capacity for empathy. However, contemporary research challenges this stereotype, suggesting that everyone, barring individuals with severe psychosis, harbors the capacity for empathy. The tendency, known as the double empathy problem, is for empathy to naturally gravitate towards those we perceive as similar to ourselves. In essence, while it may appear that individuals with ASD struggle with empathetic responses towards neurotypical individuals, it's equally true that neurotypical individuals may exhibit difficulty in empathizing with those on the spectrum.

It takes great strength of character, especially humanity and temperance, to develop empathy for people who are different from us. Essentially, the double empathy problem arises because we’re not strengthening that character muscle, and both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals can grow and stretch in their character journeys. 


Developing Character Allows Diversity to Flourish 

Character development and neurodiversity are intrinsically linked. Character dimensions such as humanity, humility, temperance, courage, justice, transcendence and collaboration, which are often under-weighted in organization practices, are key pillars of neurodivergent leadership and neurodiversity employment programs, and will enable organizations to reject the bias of ableism and benefit from the promise of neurodivergent talent. Developing a leader's character is a critical missing piece essential to exercising the muscles we all need to unlock the exciting potential of neurodivergent talent in organizations. 


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