Thursday, July 17, 2008

Asperger Syndrome and Leadership

Robin of Bent Society recently asked an interesting question: Does British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have Asperger Syndrome, and if so should that disqualify him as a leader?

I don't have any opinion of him as a politician or a person. When I was in London last fall, I read some articles accusing him of being indecisive, but if even if that's the case it's not a basic feature of AS.

Let's be clear: Aspies do have some hurdles to deal with in regard to working with people, much less leading them. Aspies are not sociopaths, who cannot empathize with others, and thus cannot feel shame, guilt, love, remorse or similar emotions. Aspies do have difficulty empathizing with people, especially if we have never been in the other persons' shoes. For example, a young Aspie may find it especially hard to empathize with older people. (On the other hand, many Aspies, including myself, have tended to seek out older people as friends from an early age. I like to tell my wife that when I was 18, I wanted to marry a 26-year-old. It took me some 17 years but I finally did it.)

Aspies need to make special efforts to communicate the empathy we do feel. Partly that's because we tend to speak and write very logically, even pedantically. (You might find that I'm one of them.) So when we talk, we seem very dry and detached, and then it's hard for others to want to follow us. Thus, we need to try more to talk and write like neurotypicals, or NTs, do.

Aspies need to use our special eye (and ear) for detail to pick up on NTs' communication habits, such as body language, posture, tone of voice, connotations things like that. For example, it helps to know that when someone has his arms crossed across his chest and is standing back from you frowning, he's probably much less receptive than someone whose arms are open and who is standing close to you smiling.

We also need to understand tact: how to decode it from NTs and how to encode it for them. (In fact, tact helps to a smaller extent even with other Aspies, though Aspies and NTs alike need to be more straightforward when talking to Aspies.) For example, instead of saying "You fouled up this project" - even if that's the case - often (not always, but often) it's best to start with "This project did not receive the attention it needed, and as a result we had more defects than we should have had."

If we can do those things, I believe we Aspies can be leaders. We may even some advantages in that case; besides the detail orientation I mentioned, Aspies often have a great deal of difficulty lying. Aspies as a group may therefore have more credibility. (For example, one of my friends has told me that the one quality of mine which comes across the most is my sincerity.)

I've been a Toastmaster since June 2007. Since then I've learned a great deal about communicating with and leading others. I've since won multiple speech contests and earned the Competent Communicator award, and now I'm an Assistant Governor of an area of four clubs and Education Chair of a division of four areas.

To be sure: I've been lucky. Since my club was very new, our District Governor and Area Governor both visited frequently, and noticed me. They mentored me and gave me strong advice. Not always advice that I wanted or even expected to hear, mind you. But strong advice and guidance. I also got to meet our Assistant Division Governor (now Division Governor), who also belongs to our club, and I've met many other leaders at Toastmasters events.

And I'm not the only one. Lisa Bishop, another Aspie, is a Toastmaster. She's about to become a Competent Communicator herself, and meanwhile she's already Vice President for Public Relations for two clubs. She says Toastmasters gave her the courage to go back to school, where she has since earned her Bachelor's in Mental Health and Human Services. She also said that her relationships with her husband and children have improved, and she's become more assertive at work. Lisa Bishop is a true success story.

So, can we do it? Can we use our distinctive strengths, plus a good deal of hard work and practice, to leap our distinctive hurdles and be good communicators and leaders?

Yes we can!


Medic61 said...

As a leadership minor, I find this very interesting! Firstly, to think that a person should be "disqualified" as a leader due to a condition (whether or not that person has it)! That ruffles my feathers, no matter what the possible condition is.

Thank you for shedding more light on AS for me and others, Jeff!

travis said...

i am very interested in this. i have been researching alot and believe i have a form of aspie. after being a communications guy in the Army for about 8 years i look back and see way now i have always had struggles in the past. regardless though i have made to sgt and almost to ssg. but i lack confidence in my leadership because of awkward social skills. thank you so much for the post i am going to look into toastmasters.

Jeff Deutsch said...

Congratulations Sergeant Travis!

(As a teenager, I wanted to join the Army myself, but decided at the last minute not to go through with it. [Don't worry, I hadn't made any commitments.] Way to go for taking the plunge and succeeding thus far!)

Good luck with Toastmasters...and please accept my apologies for being so late to approve/respond to your comment.

Jeff Deutsch