Why Leadership Development Needs to Focus on the Brain

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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stressed female at work

Over the last week, I have had two very similar percentages rolling around my head:

  • In my blog post last week, I reported a finding that people with ADHD generally operate at 30% reduced ability across self-awareness, self-restraint, hindsight/foresight, time management, emotional self-control, self-motivation, and planning and problem-solving.
  • In one of my most favorite TED talks, Shawn Achor reports that a brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.

In addition to these findings…

While I wasn’t able to find a percentage, something that I am aware of is that people who have experienced psychological trauma:

  • Have worse performance on processing speed, attention, and executive functioning
  • Have worse behavioral health and physical health
  • Struggle more with relationships, careers, self-esteem, and sleep

The percentage difference between someone with no past trauma and with past trauma probably is contingent upon the extent of the trauma.

3 Factors that Affect the Functioning of Leaders’ Brains

What I have just identified are three factors that significantly affect the functioning of leaders’ brains: ADHD, stress/mood, and trauma.

One thing in common across these three factors is that the negative effects of these factors can be overcome with proper treatment. Specialists can work with people with ADHD or past trauma to help them heal their brain. And, we can either limit leaders’ stress or improve their capacity to deal with stress.

But, how focused are organizations on providing leaders with significant support in these areas? My experience is that most organizations are not very focused on these factors at all.

But, should they be?

Why Organizations Should Focus on Providing Support Across These Three Factors

There are at least two reasons why organizations should provide intentional support associated with ADHD, stress, and trauma.

First, let’s go back to the percentages. How significant of a difference is it to have one leader who has 30% less self-awareness, self-restraint, hindsight/foresight, time management, emotional self-control, self-motivation, and planning and problem-solving than another leader? How significant of a difference is it to have one leader who is 30% more productive than another leader?

Those are some massive differences.

Second, my experience is that a large percentage of leaders have some combination of ADHD, significant stress, and past trauma.

Research has found that 70% of adults have experienced past trauma, 6% of adults have been diagnosed with ADHD (but it is likely significantly underdiagnosed, particularly with leaders), and 41% of senior leaders are stressed and 70% of senior leaders say burnout is affecting their ability to make decisions.

Together, these reasons suggest that if organizations overlook supporting their leaders with ADHD, stress, and past trauma, they are getting much less out of their leaders, much poorer decisions, and much poorer leadership than what they could get otherwise.


In one medium-sized organization I am working with, I strongly suspect that the CEO has ADHD. What I have observed from this leader, includes:

  • Very little foresight and poor planning. He struggles to look beyond the moment. He doesn’t have much interest in developing a clear strategy. And, there is no strategic planning.
  • He is not very self-aware, and seems unwilling to seek out feedback. Even when he does receive feedback, it never seems to sink in.
  • He struggles with emotional self-control and self-restraint. When a problem pops up in the organization, he is often the first one to respond, and often does so in emotionally-charged ways with negative repercussions for his employees.

In another organization I am working with, under stress and pressure, the CEO mismanaged the launch of a new software infrastructure for the company and failed to postpone the launch when they should have. He failed to seek adequate feedback and input on the readiness of the software prior to launch. The launch ended up being a catastrophic failure, leading to him being fired.

In a third organization I have worked with, the CEO has been quite open about the trauma he experienced in his past, which was significant. As a leader now, he struggles to build positive relationships with his leadership team, he struggles with trust, and he is not very good at holding his leaders accountable. Yes, he can build relationships, trust, and hold people accountable, but probably at a 30%-ish reduced capacity than most others who have not been through significant trauma.

So What?

If you are in a position where you develop leaders, how much do you focus on the health and functionality of your leaders’ brains? Do you provide support for ADHD, stress, and past trauma?

If you would like to explore ways that you can start focusing on these things, let’s connect. I would love to share some vertical development approaches that I use to help with these factors.

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