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Guest opinion: What it means to lead with ADHD


By Beth Shelton | CEO, Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa

I have an abundance of focus. So much so that it flows out of me like the surgical precision of a laser, intense and precise. It slices through projects, it’s visionary and sometimes gives me  “project X-ray vision” to see through barriers and create innovative solutions. It’s a superpower, there’s no question of that.

This focus has contributed to nearly every achievement I’ve had in my life — laser-focused commitment to the repetition of practicing free throws, hitting thousands of tennis balls to invisible opponents on empty courts, writing thousands of words on projects, speeches and articles.

The seeds of my ideas spontaneously combust into action. There’s a fire that ignites them, fuels them. It’s hard to take credit for this energy — it’s just there, in my brain, always buzzing.

It’s not a deficit. It’s directional. We don’t describe lasers as lacking. We find tremendous value in their precision and we embrace so many ways to utilize them to change the world. But imagine if we tried to use a pinpoint laser to turn a kettle of kernels into popcorn. Failure would be certain. One kernel would experience beautiful, bursting, popping success, but hundreds of others would sit stagnant in their cold, hard shells. We call them “duds.”

For all the value of my superpower, I have left a lot of duds in my wake. When the direction of my attention isn’t on a task, it becomes a cold, hard dud. The direction of my attention can zig and zag — with time and intention, it can even be forced to go a certain direction. But it does not — will not — evenly disperse or go multiple directions at once. What I can only describe as “neuro-cobwebs” creep into my brain when it’s asked to function in a different way. I can physically feel the fog creep into my effectiveness.

My ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis in 2019 at age 40 felt so natural, so obvious. And it has ultimately been so helpful.

I’ve been private, shying away from the “label.” The word “deficit” doesn’t resonate with me, and frankly, doesn’t sound overly flattering. The freedom of understanding the neuroscience that makes my brain different has given me the ability to seek tools and embrace where I shine as a leader and supplement where I don’t. Like the advice I freely give to others, I decided
if I didn’t like the way something was going, I needed to get into the action to change it.

Sometimes we describe getting involved as giving our “blood, sweat and tears.” I find it easy to give my time and physical exertion to important projects. What I find much more difficult is to crack the veneer of my ego and reputation. Let’s face it, wearing a badge that says “deficit” is a pretty big start. Call it what you want. My perspective has shifted to welcome the tremendous value of my directional attention.

I received my diagnosis after multiple visits to multiple practitioners, including a half-day with a neuropsychologist and hours of tests. My experience with ADHD and the sensation of having a superpower is not every person’s experience with ADHD. I have a list of what I wish people knew, but invite you to ask others what their wish list looks like.

1) I wish you wouldn’t patronize me with your assumptions about ADHD. Comments like “Well, everyone gets bored” or “If we all just (insert opinion here: ‘went outside more/ stayed off our phones/ didn’t eat any sugar/ embraced yoga’), no one would even have ADHD.”

There’s clear, concise information about how ADHD brains function differently. The neuron pathways are different. The chemicals are different, with a noticeable deficit of norepinephrine. The functionality of various sections of the brain are different, particularly in how the various sections work (or don’t work) with each other. You can spend two minutes educating yourself and enjoy a lifetime of beneficial perspective.

2) It’s not personal. I work really hard to address the social aspects of this diagnosis, but I know it impacts other people. I practice active listening but have a hard time doing so when I’m focused on something else, like a sporting event. Dear moms in bleachers, I promise I’m not trying to be rude or standoffish. My tunnel vision is seeing “dribble, ball, hoop,” not “How’s work going for you?” I care about your life and your work, but I need intentional time to give you my full attention. When I have coffee dates and dinner reservations with friends I never have my phone out, I work to give you my focus because you are worth it and I care. I now say to my colleagues, “Give me 60 seconds to finish this email then I will give you my full attention.”

3) I work to be patient in understanding that other people often don’t think or act like I do, so please try to be patient with me as well. I have exuberance and creativity that flows freely. It could feel like I don’t respect a process or timeline when in fact my energy doesn’t stop because a project plan says the time isn’t right.

4) I can be organized. I know it’s not my natural state, but it is important in both life and work. You can expect that from me and give me feedback when you’re not getting what you need.
But I need designated time, preferably in a quiet place, to get lost in the project plan — to push my attention toward the task of doing it. Expect it from me, but don’t expect it without giving me time to prepare.

5) I have time-blindness. It can come off as great under pressure and optimistic, but it also creates an agonizing dissonance between my intentions and actions. I’m sure you don’t
care how great I am under pressure if I am 12 minutes late to your meeting because I was optimistically changing the world in my previous meeting. I don’t want a “pass” if it negatively impacts you, but please don’t shame me. I am aware, I seek tools all the time to correct my ineffectiveness at perceiving time outside of the present, and I see growth.

Beth Shelton is the chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa where she challenges the status quo of nonprofit management through an innovative approach to workplace culture and leadership.  A life-long amputee, Beth travels across the country speaking from the heart about overcoming obstacles, leading with compassion and driving amazing results. Connect with her via LinkedIn.

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