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What Can We Learn From a CEO With ADHD?

Today we have an interesting, non-stigmatizing article that shows how it’s possible to be successful with ADHD … in Wall Street Journal, of all places. Hey, I’ll take it!

The article includes an interview with Selim Bassoul, CEO of Middleby Corporation, and talks about how he runs a company while having dyslexia and ADHD.

Business MeetingThe piece raises an interesting question: is it possible to be a chief executive if you have impaired executive functioning? The answer, apparently, is a resounding yes.

Like many successful people with ADHD, Bassoul pulls it off by organizing his career in a way that fits with his brain. He obviously has excellent coping skills, and he also uses his ADHD to bring a different perspective.

In the interview, Bassoul describes himself as restless and impatient. But he accommodates these traits in the way he manages his work.

For example, one of the hallmarks of his leadership style has been cutting back on meetings. Here’s how he described this decision to WSJ:

I haven’t always been the leader. I was at one point a staff member who had to go to meetings, and I saw that in the majority of meetings, the agendas weren’t set correctly. And people take days and days to prepare for the meeting and then they prepare for another meeting. There is no conclusion. I didn’t see that as productive. So I swore to myself, the day I became a leader, I wouldn’t let the company be like this.

See, here is a guy who knows how to cope with ADHD. In a way, the impatience that comes with the disorder has made him more sensitive to wasted time. He knows that meetings aren’t his strong point anyway, so he’s decided to eliminate them altogether. And it turns out that this might be for the better, anyway – how many of the people he works with are really going to complain about not having enough meetings to attend?

But it’s not just meetings he’s gotten rid of. In his words:

I do very little emailing, no Facebook, no LinkedIn. I’ve seen that some CEOs expect to spend 50% to 60% of their days sunk into meetings, email, memos, reading reports.

Again, he realizes that his brain just isn’t at its best when it’s “sunk into” these administrative tasks. There’s a lesson here for all of us, whether we’re CEOs or not: don’t be afraid to do things differently if the usual methods don’t work for you. It might turn out that there’s nothing so great about the status quo to begin with.

Well, if this guy isn’t busy reading memos and organizing meetings, what is he doing? He’s interacting with people and feeling out how things are going on the ground:

I’m always going out in the factory, or with our sales people, or in the customer’s backyard

Now where have I heard this before? Oh that’s right – it reminds me of David Neeleman, ADHDer and founder of JetBlue, who was known for putting in time handling baggage while he was running the company.

Which brings us to another general point about living with ADHD: people with ADHD are often in their element when they’re doing things in a more hands-on way. They’re able to contribute the most when they’re less bogged down by administrative tasks and more immersed in stimulating situations.

For me, what makes this story great is that it’s not an article that unconvincingly tries to tell us that people with ADHD can do exactly the same things people without ADHD can. Rather, it shows us that people with ADHD can do things in their own ways, with great success.

There’s no doubt that Bassoul runs things differently. He describes his leadership style as very “decentralized.” He plays to his own strengths and lets people have autonomy to play to theirs.

But his company is thriving, and he says that 98 percent of their employees have stayed on, so his individual leadership style must be working out OK.

And that’s why the ultimate lesson from Bassoul’s story is, as he puts it, that “there is an alternative way of managing” and that “someone like me can be successful and accepted.”

Image: Flickr/thetaxhaven

What Can We Learn From a CEO With ADHD?

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). What Can We Learn From a CEO With ADHD?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 May 2017
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