Elon Musk recently shared that he is autistic. He was not the first billionaire to disclose as neurodivergent. There are others as discussed in a previous article, but most have ADHD or dyslexia rather than being autistic. There are few autistic business leaders who are household names. This has serious implications for autistic leadership.
Charlotte Valeur is one who has disclosed as autistic; she is a director of top UK businesses. When disclosing she also shared that she was most likely discounting herself from future boards by her announcement.
Why does disclosure impact the public perception of leaders? Autism is often described through three lenses: niche interests, challenges in interacting with the environment and challenges in interacting with people. Let us look at each in turn.
THE SPECIALIST CEO
The first autistic lens – niche interests – is increasingly seen as a specialist strength. Almost every CEO I know has a technical area of expertise, and that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
Many tech founders joke about having to stop writing “founder’s code”. Whether a CEO has a background in coding, engineering, accounting, media, or other areas, there is an accepted tension in engaging in versus stepping back from the specialisation. That focus has usually led to the founding ‘Aha!’ moment of the business and yet they must also delegate that expertise in order to run the company.
The second lens, challenges with interacting with your environment, is increasingly understood and accepted in the workplace. Noise cancelling headphones, sleep pods at many tech firms, even temperature and sound control booths at Google, and other such innovations help manage sensory challenges.
It is much more accepted to wear noise cancelling headphones, and in some offices, they are used to signal that the person wearing them is in do-not-disturb mode. It has become the 21st-century equivalent of closing the office door.
As another example, fidget toys that were once shunned by schools are now provided at conferences to help keep delegates focused.
THE LOW EQ CEO
At an all autistic firm in the Netherlands, it is the third lens, interacting with other people, that was pinpointed as a key area of concern of leadership according to staff. (See Neurodiversity Media’s What does Autistic Leadership look like in 2020? for a helpful discussion of this paper).
Although all those interviewed were leaders themselves, they were negative about the capacity of other autistic people to fulfill leadership tasks. As one respondent said, ‘To run an organization …requires certain skills and I think autistic people either do not have emotional room for it or lack those skills.”
However, if you look at EQ scores, we should be concerned about all CEOs. Travis Bradberry, in Emotional Intelligence 2.0, assessed staff across various roles. Employees were average, managers were the highest, executive leaders were lower than all the above and CEOs were lowest of all. It could be that our corporate ladders reward low EQ by promoting results-driven people rather than those who are empathetic.
All neurodiverse leaders; in fact, almost all leaders; have people around them as assistants and/or executive team who help fill in the gaps in their skillset. This is one reason why many neurodiverse leaders are not known. For example, assistants, by dealing with correspondence, help leaders who are dyslexic to seamlessly interact with colleagues.
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
There are many steps that leaders with deficits in social interactions can take, such as investing time in understanding the work preferences and communication styles of themselves and their colleagues.
Another strategy is to be authentic and telegraph your low EQ with immediate colleagues. What if leaders were open about their challenges as much as strengths? By sharing with your team that you don’t always pick up certain signals, for example, they will take steps to communicate more clearly. We encourage all managers of neurodivergent staff to have this conversation. Many tell us they should understand the communication profile of all their staff.
A third strategy is to work with a coach or mentor to improve your EQ. A coach can identify areas for improvement and help equip you with the skills needed to enhance your emotional intelligence.
Finally, try getting enough sleep. Travis Bradberry advocates for sleep as a way to recharge and improve EQ for executive leaders.
The issue remains that it is still currently challenging to be an openly autistic leader. This means that neurodivergent people miss out on potential role models. I hope Musk’s step gives others the courage to share both their strengths and their challenges with the world.