While scholarship has increased on the topic of neurodiversity in organizations,
which refers to individuals with pervasive developmental disorders
in the workforce, leadership theory and research has not yet integrated this
perspective. Consistent with conventional conceptualizations of disability as
an impairment, the few relevant leadership studies tend to approach these
differences as special cases, rather than as a population to which theory may
be generalized. As a result, management scholars have yet to develop theories
and models that are inclusive of neurodiversity. Using the critical disability
theory as a lens for reframing assumptions about leadership behavior as
described in existing theory and research, we postulate that neurodiversity
may serve as a cognitive strength from which leadership derives. We offer
a conceptual model that articulates how cognitive characteristics associated
with neurodiversity may lead to task-based leadership behavior, and we
trace the influence of such behaviors on leader and follower outcomes. The
model also includes enabling conditions that may positively influence the
emergence and recognition of neurodiverse individuals as leaders. We
conclude by proposing directions for future research to better integrate the neurodiversity and leadership literatures and reflecting on the associated practical implications.
What are the characteristics of an effective leader? While research over the last
100 years has endeavored to answer this question (see Lord, Day, Zaccaro,
Avolio, & Eagly, 2017), leadership narratives have revealed variation in the
skills and approaches of those considered to be leaders. For example, while
many leaders are recognized for their adeptness in social settings, others have
been described as “eccentric,” “aloof,” and “awkward” (see Overskeid, 2016).
Similarly, some leaders have been lauded for their communication and interpersonal
skills, while others have been credited for having an “encyclopedic
knowledge,” “ability to impose order,” or “commitment to mastery”
(Baron-Cohen, 2008). Given such contrasting hallmarks of leaders, individuals
like Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg, and Temple Grandin have been
recognized for their effective yet unconventional leadership. Often, eccentricities
in their leadership approaches have been attributed to their disabilities,
specifically as individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or Asperger
syndrome (AS) (see Cash, 1999). Little research to date, however, has
explored how these characteristics may influence leadership behaviors.
Moreover, the few studies in this area have focused on neurodiversity as an
impediment to effective leadership (e.g., Hurley-Hanson & Giannantonio,
The term neurodiversity refers to a set of pervasive developmental disorders,
including ASD, AS, and childhood disintegrative disorder, that
generate restricted and repetitive patterns of interest and behavior as well as
difficulties with communication and social interaction (American Psychiatric
Association, 2013). While each condition is characterized by its own set
of behaviors, they are commonly indicated by deficits in communication
and social behavior. While these neurobiological conditions are typically
considered to be cognitive impairments, viewing them as neurodiversity
challenges mainstream notions of such characteristics as shortcomings
and embodies a more constructive conceptualization of disability (Kapp,
Gillespie-Lynch, Sherman, & Hutman, 2013). More specifically, while these
disabilities capture atypicality in neurological development, proponents of
a neurodiversity perspective consider them to be a natural human difference
that should be acknowledged and valued, like other individual differences (Jaarsma & Welin, 2012). The neurodiversity perspective encourages exploration
of these individuals’ different ways of thinking and working as
capabilities that can contribute to their effectiveness in organizations
(Krzeminska, Austin, Bruyere, & Hedley, 2019), rather than as obstacles to
upward mobility and career success that result when others see such characteristics
as deficits (Holwerda, Van Der Klink, Groothoff, & Brouwer,
Here, we consider leadership mainly in terms of formal, role-based
leadership. Although there are numerous definitions of and approaches to
studying formal leadership, a fundamental assumption across much of the
extant literature is that a social influence process is involved (Yukl, 2012). For
example, Yukl (2006: 8) defines leadership as “the process of influencing
others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it,
and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish
shared objectives.” In this process, the leader is a critical actor with much of
his/her influence deriving from the patterns of social interaction he/she initiates
(Lord et al., 2017). While we agree with the idea that social influence
processes are central to effective leadership, we suggest that an emphasis on
the social and interpersonal aspects of leadership in the prior literature has
shifted focus away from other leadership behaviors and skills at which
neurodiverse individuals may excel. As a result, such individuals may be
passed over for leadership opportunities, even though these experiences may
be beneficial to individuals and organizations alike (e.g., Mumford, Zaccaro,
Harding, Jacobs, & Fleishman, 2000).
This research seeks to address the gap in theory and research that exists
on neurodiversity and leadership. We review extant research to understand
current perspectives on the extent to which neurodiverse individuals can be
leaders in organizations. Considering that such perspectives are grounded in
relationship-based approaches to leadership, we leverage the critical disability
theory to proffer an alternative perspective that articulates possible cognitive
strengths associated with neurodiversity. From this lens, we offer model and
propositions for how neurodiverse characteristics may lead to cognitively
oriented leadership behaviors, which may subsequently affect leader and
follower outcomes. We also consider contextual factors that may enable the
emergence of leadership among neurodiverse individuals. By emphasizing
task-oriented approaches to leadership and the value of problem-focused
cognition, we endeavor to refocus our conceptual understanding of leader
characteristics and behaviors and develop a starting point for understanding
how neurodiverse individuals may engage in effective leadership. In so doing,
we hope to highlight the capabilities of neurodiverse individuals in order to
foster greater inclusion of these individuals within leadership (and other management related) theory and research as well as within leadership roles in organizations.
Can Neurodiverse Individuals Be Leaders?
Although research has investigated leadership among neurodiverse individuals,
the focus of these studies has primarily been on descriptive accounts
of their leadership experiences. Research has drawn attention to neurodiversity
characteristics as impediments to the development of the effective
social relationships through which leadership occurs (Hurley-Hanson &
Giannantonio, 2017), and highlighted an array of institutional and personal
barriers that diminish the likelihood of neurodiverse individuals being perceived
as leaders (see Emira, Brewster, Duncan, & Clifford, 2018). For
example, the results of a study on leadership emergence among people with
learning disabilities showed that having a disability negatively impacted both
peer perceptions of leadership potential and leadership role occupancy, although
no significant differences in leadership effectiveness were indicated in
supervisor and peer evaluations (Luria, Kalish, & Weinstein, 2014). Our
understanding of leadership by neurodiverse individuals is further limited by
an assumption that their influence will be predominantly on similar others
(Powers et al., 2002). As such, leadership among people with disabilities has
largely been conceptualized as advocacy, role modeling, or other consultative
behaviors (Carter, Swedeen,Walter, Moss, & Shin, 2011; Powers et al., 2002).
In general, this research has focused on neurodiversity as a limitation, barrier,
and/or impediment to aspiring leaders.
Parallel to research on leadership among neurodiverse individuals is a
small body of research exploring the effectiveness of specific approaches to
leadership on the attitudes and behaviors of neurodiverse employees. For
example, based on the criticism that research overemphasizes the affective
components of leadership (see Hunter, Bedell-Avers, & Mumford, 2007),
Parr, Hunter, and Ligon (2013) examined the effects of dimensions of
transformational leadership on the work outcomes of individuals with ASD.
As the findings highlight the differential impact of certain transformational
leadership behaviors, the authors conclude that such leadership operates
through both cognitive and affective mechanisms for this population. In
another study, comparing the influence of leadership styles on work outcomes
for employees with ASD, the results revealed that leader behaviors differentially
impact work attitudes and work performance (Parr & Hunter, 2014).
Consequently, the authors speculate that the atypical needs and preferences of
neurodiverse individuals initiate unique mechanisms for successfully engaging
such employees, which subsequently require distinctive leadership approaches. Interestingly, however, these studies do not consider neurodiverse
individuals themselves in leadership roles.
As noted in the introduction, leadership clearly depends on interpersonal
influence processes. Yet, a concentration on the social and interpersonal
aspects of leadership in the current literature may have shifted attention away
from those aspects at which neurodiverse individuals may excel. The behavioral
approach to studying leadership (e.g., Fleishman, 1953; Stogdill &
Coons, 1957), with its emphasis on a two-factor conceptualization of leadership
that distinguishes between behaviors that are task oriented (initiating
structure) and relationship oriented (consideration), may be partly responsible
for this. While findings from a wide range of studies suggest that both types
of behaviors are important in terms of driving leader effectiveness and team
performance (Lord et al., 2017; Yukl, 2012), recent research has mostly
centered on the interpersonal rather than the task-focused side of leadership
(Ceri-Booms, Curseu, & Oerlemans, 2017). For example, recent reviews of
the literature on leadership in teams subsume six types of leadership—
transformational leadership, empowering leadership, consideration, emotionally
intelligent leadership, coaching-focused leadership, and charismatic
leadership—as person focused, given a focus on the satisfaction of social
identity and affiliative needs (Burke et al., 2006; Ceri-Booms et al., 2017).
Other popular and recently studied types of leadership, such as authentic
leadership (e.g., Luthans & Avolio, 2003), leader–member exchange (e.g.,
Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995), and servant leadership (e.g., van Dierendonck,
2011), can also be categorized as relationship oriented due to a conceptual
concentration on the interpersonal aspects of the leader–follower relationship.
In contrast, prior reviews identify initiating behavior, transactional behavior,
and boundary spanning behavior as task-focused approaches to
leadership (Burke et al., 2006; Ceri-Booms et al., 2017; Klein, Knight,
Ziegert, Lim, & Saltz, 2011; Stoker, 2008). Initiating behavior includes
traditional managerial functions of planning, organizing, and controlling, and
emphasizes efforts toward goal attainment (Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004). It is
important to note that while these behaviors do involve social influence, the
focus is on effective coordination and motivation of others’ task performance
rather than the management of complex social dynamics (Fleishman, 1953).1
Transactional behaviors emphasize the contractual obligations between the
leader and followers in terms of the rewards and discipline to motivate
follower behavior and performance (e.g., Den Hartog, van Muijen, &
Koopman, 1997; Goodwin, Wofford, & Whittington, 2001), while boundary
spanning incorporates a range of behaviors associated with the management
of relationships external to a team (see Benoliel & Somich, 2015 for
a review). It is important to note, however, that while there are research streams focused on these task-related leadership behaviors, they have received
relatively less attention in the leadership literature than the more interpersonal
and/or relational leadership behaviors.
Beyond bifurcated models of leadership, this emphasis on social acumen
and influence is evident in multifaceted conceptualizations of leadership. For
example, Zaccaro (2014) discusses four leader meta-models that characterize
how people have conceptualized leadership across time and cultures and
highlight the amplification of leadership as social acumen and interpersonal
influence. He discusses the leader–teacher meta-model, which is driven by
empathy, or an ability to understand and connect psychologically with others;
the leader–politician meta-model, which reflects the importance of social
relationships between leader and followers and relies on impression management
behaviors; and the leader–warrior meta-model, which is enabled by
personal qualities and strategies for inspiring followers to persist in their
actions. However, the leader–problem solver meta-model is propelled by a
different set of behaviors that demonstrate attention to, and understanding of,
the task. Incorporating such activities as developing problem awareness, sense
making around complex issues, generating solutions to complex problems,
and solution implementation (Zaccaro, 2014), this leadership model emphasizes
the roles of problem-focused cognition.
Some recent conceptualizations of leadership highlight the role of cognitive
skills in leadership effectiveness. This approach aligns with the idea that
the study of leadership should include more than interactions between leaders
and subordinates and a focus on social influence. For example, Mumford et al.
(2000) propose a capabilities-based model, which centers on assessing, understanding,
and schematically organizing different pieces of information.
The authors suggest that knowledge regarding the tasks at hand, the organization
itself, and the people with whom one works is critical for developing
case-based knowledge, which is a particularly complex form of experiential
knowledge that includes information about goals, cause–effect relationships,
past experiences, and contingencies (Hammond, 1990). Further, the application
of such knowledge in any given scenario facilitates the creation of
knowledge structures and mental models that drive problem-solving
(Mumford, Friedrich, Caughron, & Byrne, 2007; Mumford, Todd, Higgs,
& Mcintosh, 2017). This information processing is then used by leaders in the
formulation and implementation of solutions to address complex social
These more task-focused approaches to leadership may provide conceptual
space for neurodiversity. Although prior research has highlighted neurodiverse
individuals’ social capabilities as barriers to being perceived, engaged,
and supported as leaders (Emira et al., 2018), such exclusion may also be attributable to the current emphasis on the social properties of leadership.With
an implicit assumption that leader effectiveness is driven by interpersonal
behaviors, certain characteristics of neurodiverse individuals have been
considered impediments to leadership. Yet, approaches to leadership that
center on problem-focused cognition may motivate a different perspective on
neurodiversity. Specifically, task-related conceptualizations that highlight
cognitive skills may allow the information processing differences of neurodiverse
individuals to be recognized as valuable antecedents to leadership.
In the next section, we adopt a critical perspective on disability and leadership
to explore the potential for neurodiversity to be valued for its associated
capabilities that may drive task-related leadership in organizations.
Neurodiversity as a Leadership Capability
Critical Disability Theory
The critical disability theory derives from postmodern philosophies which
argue that existing power structures are created by cultural assumptions and
societal expectations (Rocco, 2005). Rooted in this premise, the critical
disability theory introduces disability as a social construct that emerges from
interrelationships between an impairment and the sociocultural environment
in which it is situated, including the normative beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors
of others (Devlin & Pothier, 2006). It is these “others,” who—without
a physical or cognitive impairment—are considered to represent the norm
and, in effect, establish ability standards. Accordingly, those who do not fit
social expectations of what it means to be able-bodied or able-minded are
excluded from power structures and marginalized within social hierarchies
(Devlin & Pothier, 2006). The critical disability theory serves to identify and
challenge the normative assumptions inherent in traditional disability studies
and reshape the discourse to include people with disabilities (Rocco, 2005).
We use this lens to center on the positive cognitive characteristics neurodiverse
individuals may exhibit and introduce a model of leadership that
builds on these characteristics.
As shown in our qualitative overview of the extant literature on neurodiversity
and leadership, researchers have approached the topic from an
accommodation perspective, which suggests that interventions and other
forms of support are needed to help neurodiverse individuals perform the
essential functions of the role (Sumner & Brown, 2015). In addition, those
identified as leaders tend to be acknowledged for their influence on others with
disabilities via role modeling, mentoring, and advocacy (Carter et al., 2011;
Powers et al., 2002). Critical disability theorists would argue that such conclusions are based on an ableism worldview (see Peña, Stapleton, &
Schaffer, 2016), which is predicated on an assumption that the leadership
capabilities of neurodiverse individuals should be evaluated based on the
extent of their disability and the degree to which it allows them to fit within
traditional models of leadership. Also implied in this worldview is that
neurodiverse individuals should strive toward able-minded norms of leadership
that have been articulated in the current literature (see Peña et al., 2016).
As a result, leadership research has primarily treated neurodiversity as an
impairment that gives rise to deficiencies rather than as a normalized characteristic
that engenders a distinctive set of skills.
We adopt an alternative perspective on neurodiversity and leadership.
Consistent with the critical disability theory, we reconceptualize neurodiversity
as a form of cognitive variation and highlight the potential competencies
of neurodiverse individuals. Rather than identifying the challenges
that neurodiverse individuals face when demonstrating neurotypical patterns
of behavior, we emphasize their strengths. Further, using these competencies
as a distinctive set of skills in work organizations, we consider their role in the
enactment of effective leadership.
Neurodiversity as a Cognitive Strength
As noted above, instead of representing the cognitive attributes of neurodiverse
individuals as nonnormative characteristics or impairments to their
employment, critical disability research has represented them as strengths
stemming from distinctive ways of thinking. For example, while some research
suggests that neurodiverse individuals’ sensory hypersensitivity may
serve as a distraction within work environments, other work finds that it is
correlated with a sensitivity and attention to details (Tomczak, 2020). Specifically,
the cognitive patterns associated with neurodiversity that facilitate
detail-focused attention on sensory information also tend to create an enhanced
ability to absorb and retain large amounts of information (Lorenz &
Heinitz, 2014). The findings of research comparing the work performance of
employees with and without ASD revealed that neurodiverse individuals
perform at above-average levels in terms of attention to detail in work tasks
and subsequent work quality (Scott et al., 2017). Research also suggests that
this sensory acuity activates cognitive processing differences that increase
work accuracy (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, Ashwin, Tavassoli, & Chakrabarti,
While neurodiverse individuals are often characterized as engaging in
tangential thinking processes, research has more precisely identified such
individuals as visual thinkers (Grandin, 2009). Attributed to a heightened
discriminability, or an ability to distinguish between the features of different
stimuli, neurodiversity is associated with a tendency to process information as
visual images (Morris, Begel, & Wiedermann, 2015). For these types of
learners, knowledge is represented as forms and structures and processed by
creating relationships between inputs to develop schemes and structures
(Kozhevnikov, Kosslyn, & Shephard, 2005). Accordingly, neurodiverse individuals
are more likely to engage in spatial thinking than neurotypical,
language-based thinkers (Grandin, 2009). Given the uniqueness of such visual
processing, research has shown that neurodiversity can lead to creativity and
the generation of novel solutions to problems (Wong, Donelly, Neck, & Boyd,
2018). Interestingly, the findings of studies examining the cost and benefits of
hiring employees with ASD suggest that the addition of such diverse processing
skills and approaches also helps to create more adaptive work environments
(see Scott et al., 2017).
The sensory hypersensitivities of neurodiverse individuals, including their
visual acuity, are typically associated with a tendency for fixation and inflexibility
(Lorenz & Heinitz, 2014). Research shows, however, that some
neurodiverse individuals can be experts in systematizing or recognizing repeating
patterns in stimuli (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009). By sorting through and
cataloging information, analyzing data, and reflecting on the rules of a system,
such individuals may be able to identify the unifying principles of a system
and predict how it will behave (Tomczak, 2020). In addition, this bottom-up
thinking may allow neurodiverse individuals to discover concepts, relationships,
and approaches, and subsequently construct new systems (Grandin,
Research focused on ASD highlights other characteristics that may reflect
leadership potential. Studies show that the systematizing capabilities of
neurodiverse individuals, derived from a need for structure and routine, also
apply to social factors, such as rules and codes (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009).
This social systematization may engender a strong sense of morality for
neurodiverse individuals, including emphasis on honesty and forgiveness,
which leads to a greater sense of loyalty and trustworthiness (de Schipper
et al., 2016). Consistent with these findings, some employers have identified
the values of fidelity and reliability among their neurodiverse employees (see
Austin & Pisano, 2017; Hendricks, 2010). These nuanced findings highlight
that the general characterization of neurodiverse individuals as encountering
social challenges associated with specific patterns of behavior may be unnecessarily
As suggested by the research reviewed here, the cognitive skills associated
with neurodiversity may represent capabilities for effectively delivering the
functional performance requirements of leadership. However, as task-focused
leadership or leader behavior oriented toward directing and structuring have
received substantively less attention (Mumford et al., 2000), current conceptualizations
of leadership have not yet incorporated neurodiversity and its
related competencies. Given the role of cognitive skills in leadership, we
attempt to integrate leadership and the critical disability theory by identifying
a domain of functional leadership in which the cognitive capabilities of
neurodiverse individuals may be useful for achieving both social influence
and goal attainment. Assuming that neurodiverse individuals have opportunity
and support for employing their cognitive capabilities, we purport that
they will demonstrate task-related leadership behaviors that enhance the
likelihood that they can influence others, emerge as leaders, and be perceived
as effective. We contend that recognizing and identifying specific characteristics
associated with neurodiversity as potential strengths advances
a conceptualization of and framework for studying neurodiverse individuals
as leaders in organizations.
A Model of Neurodiverse Leadership
As shown in Figure 1, we use neurodiversity characteristics as a starting point
for theorizing about this emergent approach to leadership. Drawing upon
leadership models that emphasize cognitive skill (e.g., Mumford et al., 2000,
2017), we describe a set of behaviors that may derive from these characteristics
and serve as a source of leadership influence. We focus on the
cognitive aspects of leadership and develop propositions for these relationships
as well as for the effects of neurodiverse leadership behaviors on leader
and follower outcomes. We also consider a set of enabling conditions (or
contextual factors) that may enhance the likelihood that neurodiversity
characteristics will result in certain leadership behaviors. In proposing the
model, we note that it is a starting point; the set of characteristics on which we
focus and resulting leadership behaviors are not exhaustive. Further, while we
focus on characteristics typically associated with neurodiversity, we acknowledge
that they are not exclusive to neurodiverse individuals. Accordingly,
our model is intended to articulate pathways to leadership behaviors for
anyone who demonstrates the described characteristics.
Neurodiversity and Leader Behavior
Information search behavior. Various leadership taxonomies have highlighted
information search as critical to problem-solving and subsequently, organizational
leadership. Fleishman et al. (1991) argue that because leaders must
first recognize a need for leadership, obtaining information about plans,
performance, situational constraints, and other factors related to goal
achievement is a fundamental aspect of leader behavior. To actualize and
understand the nature of problems to be addressed, they suggest that leaders
must engage in information acquisition that provides the necessary resources
for solution generation. Similarly, Mumford et al. (2017) emphasize the
importance of environmental scanning and information gathering for leadership
performance. They specifically note that because problem definition
as a leadership skill requires access to, and an understanding of, relevant
knowledge and issues, leaders must actively engage in information sourcing
strategies. As information sourcing expands leaders’ capacity for problemsolving
(Fleishman et al., 1991; Mumford et al., 2017), the efficacy of such
strategies influences leader performance.
As the sensitivity and attention to detail associated with neurodiversity
heightens individuals’ capabilities for learning large amounts of information
(Lorenz & Heinitz, 2014), we expect that it may facilitate information search
behaviors for some neurodiverse individuals. As one example, Temple
Grandin (2009) described her mind as “similar to an internet search engine,”
which is especially helpful when “huge amounts of data are required to find
the answers” (p. 1439). While Grandin has been recognized for her unique
thinking, other neurodiverse individuals may exhibit a tendency to amass
stores of information in order to engage in problem-solving. Consistent with
theory that emphasizes information search as a leadership behavior, given the
centrality of problem identification and definition to leadership (e.g.,
Mumford et al., 2000, 2017), we contend that some neurodiverse individuals
with heightened sensitivity and attention to detail may demonstrate leadership
through the enactment of information search behavior.
Proposition 1: Sensitivity and attention to detail may be positively related
to information search behavior for neurodiverse individuals.
Information use in problem-solving. Mumford et al. (2007) posit that leaders
engage in problem-solving through the development of sensemaking systems.
Specifically, they argue that leaders use data and information about a problem
as well as the context in which is embedded to understand both factual and
interpretative aspects of the situation. In doing so, they are able to develop
mental models that represent the causes, effects, and relationships between the
various aspects of the problem situation (Mumford et al., 2017). Using such
knowledge-based structures, leaders are able to compare the situation with
prototypical models to identify points of divergence and understand the
performance demands of situations (Mumford et al., 2007). Further, they
allow leaders to make sense of and develop prescriptive models that forecast
different scenarios and the associated consequences (Mumford et al., 2017).
The ability of some neurodiverse individuals to recognize patterns in
stimuli may heighten their capability to engage in sense making and use
information in problem-solving. As described by Grandin (2009), neurodiverse
individuals’ thinking may emanate from stores of information, which
are analyzed to identify unifying concepts and develop theories regarding how
things work. This associative skill is intensified by the tendency for systematizing,
which helps to organize seemingly ambiguous information
through the detection of categories and patterns (Kozhevnikov et al., 2005).
With an approach to information processing that involves the development of
mental models, some neurodiverse individuals may demonstrate a competency
for leadership through the use of information for problem-solving.
Proposition 2: The ability to recognize patterns in stimuli may be positively
related to information use in problem-solving for neurodiverse
Novel thinking. Leadership research highlights a relationship between creativity
and leader performance (see Mumford & Connelly, 1991). Based on
a fundamental assumption that problem-solving involves the generation of
new ideas or solutions, creativity is considered to be foundational to a range
of leadership styles including transformational, empowering, and leader–
member exchange (Shin, 2015). Deriving from the abilities to both explore
and exploit opportunities, cognitive skills for originating, assessing,
implementing, and revising ideas are regarded as important drivers of leader
performance (Mumford et al., 2017). Skills related to divergent thinking
facilitate the creation of new knowledge or innovative ways for applying
existing knowledge (Mumford & Connelly, 1991), while the capacity for idea
evaluation focuses problem-solving on the implementation of viable solutions
(Mumford et al., 2017). Accordingly, researchers argue that the combinatory
and iterative processes of creative and evaluative thought produce a form of
situated cognition that propels novel thinking and subsequent leader performance
(Mumford, Connelly & Gaddis, 2003).
Evidence of such creative and evaluative thought can be found among
some neurodiverse individuals. The term neurodiversity itself captures divergent
cognitive processes in both idea generation and evaluation (e.g., see
Grandin, 2009). With propensities for sensory-based information processing
that involves visual and spatial thinking, neurodiverse individuals may engage
in creative thinking and novel idea generation (Wong et al., 2018). At the same
time, an intensified proclivity for discriminability may fuel information
processing in a way that leverages their case-based knowledge or mental
models to hone such ideas into workable solutions to problems (Morris et al.,
2015). Given the cognitive influence of creativity on leader performance, we
suggest that an atypical lens through which some neurodiverse individuals
may view problem situations may be associated with leader behavior indicated
by novel thinking.
Proposition 3: The ability to think differently, particularly with respect to
visual or spatial thinking, may be positively related to novel thinking for
Stewardship. As noted in our review of the leadership literature, task-focused
approaches focus on structuring and directing others’ tasks in the interest of
goal attainment (see Mumford et al., 2000). As adherence to and fulfillment of
expectations are considered to be drivers of effective structuring behavior
(Fleishman et al., 1991), the extent to which leaders can arrange and manage
work roles, responsibilities, rules, and procedures influences effectiveness
(Lord et al., 2017). While early leadership research conceptualized such
behavior as initiating structure (Fleishman, 1953), more recent work describes
such approaches as stewardship, or behaviors that exhibit a personal responsibility
for upholding a commitment to norms and expectations to achieve
the long-term interests of a group (Hernandez, 2008). In contrast to more
relational approaches to leadership, the source of influence derives from
attention to obligations or what should be done (Fleishman et al., 1991).
Further, such influence is rooted not in the establishment of rules and procedures,
but in the legitimacy and trust generated from adherence to such
principles. Accordingly, research highlights skills for planning, organization,
and controlling task performance as aspects of leader cognition that are
paramount to the effective coordination and motivation of others (Judge et al.,
2004; Marta, Leritz, & Mumford, 2005).
As the need for structure and predictability stemming from neurodiversity
also manifests for some individuals as attention to rules and principles (see
Baron-Cohen et al., 2009), these characteristics may also lead to stewardship.
Research shows that with a concentration on details and routines, some
neurodiverse individuals have been recognized and valued for their organizing
abilities (Wong et al., 2018). Others have been acknowledged for integrity and
trustworthiness (de Schipper et al., 2016), as a result of their concern for what
is fair and just and their focus on rule adherence. Such behaviors are often
considered to demonstrate stewardship, or actions that convey personal responsibility
for upholding a commitment to norms, expectations, and superordinate
goals ahead of individual benefit (Hernandez, 2008). As such,
preferences for routine and structure that serve to systematize work for some
neurodiverse individuals may demonstrate a capacity for leadership via
Proposition 4: The need for structure and routine may be positively related
to stewardship for neurodiverse individuals.
Leader Behaviors to Outcomes
Neurodiversity characteristics may lead to the enactment of the set of leadership
behaviors we describe above and indirectly influence a range of leader
and follower outcomes. For some neurodiverse individuals, the agentic enactment
of leadership behaviors may positively influence a number of positive
personal outcomes. The critical disability theory suggests that individuals who
are differently abled in supportive contexts are more likely to experience
feelings of autonomy, personal responsibility, and empowerment, which could
lead to more positive self-perception (Powers et al., 2002). Additionally, as
they act in an empowered way and practice leadership, they may experience
higher self-esteem and efficacy for engaging in leadership and be more likely
to view themselves as leaders. Indeed, Schyns, Kiefer, and Foti (2020) find
that the congruence between how individuals see themselves and how they
view leaders in general is directly related to the development of leadership
self-efficacy (i.e., the belief that one is capable of being an effective leader)
and indirectly related to individuals’ motivation to lead. Motivation to lead, in
turn, is associated with leader emergence and effectiveness (Badura, Grijalva,
Galvin, Owens, & Joseph, 2020). Therefore, having the chance to develop
leadership skills may be an important first step for some neurodiverse individuals
in unlocking their own beliefs regarding their leadership potential,
which could subsequently lead to other positive work outcomes. Further,
active involvement in leadership may lead to enhanced effect, such as satisfaction
and commitment, as well as job engagement and effectiveness.
Overall, we suggest that enacting leadership behaviors may positively impact
beliefs, attitudes, motivation, and performance for some neurodiverse
Proposition 5: Enacting leadership behaviors may be positively related to
leaders’ self-perception, efficacy, motivation to lead, job attitudes, job
engagement, and/or performance for neurodiverse individuals.
As problem-focused cognition may enhance neurodiverse leaders’ ability
for influencing others, we also expect enacted leadership behaviors to impact
follower outcomes. Given the chance to see neurodiverse individuals’ capabilities
to manifest in the types of task-focused behaviors that may cascade
as a result, followers may be more likely to perceive such individuals as
effective leaders. Neurodiverse leaders may also role model these leadership
behaviors for followers, thereby resulting in parallel behavior. For example,
stewardship behaviors may activate a similar focus on and commitment to
norms, expectations, and collective goal attainment among followers, while
the creative thinking of neurodiverse individuals may inspire followers to
enhanced levels of creative performance. Overall, we anticipate that engagement
in these leadership behaviors for some neurodiverse individuals
may positively impact follower beliefs, motivation, and performance.
Proposition 6: Enacting leadership behaviors may be positively related to
followers’ perceptions of leader effectiveness, moral activation, and ratings
of creative performance for neurodiverse individuals.
Enabling Conditions for Neurodiversity in Leadership
Research suggests that the skills needed for leadership may be different
depending on the context within which leadership is situated, as the types of
problems differ across environments (Lord et al., 2017). As problems become
more unique, multifaceted and ambiguous at higher levels of the organization
hierarchy, they require greater conceptual and analytical capacity (Mumford
et al., 2000). As such, cognitive skills take on special significance in performance
settings in which problem-solving is a key element of leader
performance. Neurodiversity may also be of consequence within such contexts,
as researchers within the disability domain have advanced the abilities
of some neurodiverse individuals as strengths in contexts that require systematic
and associative information processing (see Baldwin, Costley, &
Warren, 2014). In particular, we consider environmental complexity, problem
novelty, and the degree to which a system is closed as conditions that may
enable behaviors related to neurodiversity as sources of leadership influence.
In complex environments characterized by interconnected and dynamic
factors at different levels of analysis, determining the outcomes of specific
courses of action may be difficult. Accordingly, leadership may be determined
by a capacity for identifying problems and generating solution alternatives
amid environmental factors that make goal attainment challenging (Mumford
et al., 2000). Cognitive skills, such as information search and use, systematizing,
and analysis, may be valuable for formulating and implementing
solutions and leading through such contexts (Zaccaro, Mumford, Connelly,
Marks, & Gilbert, 2000). These cognitive skills may be consistent with the
sensitivity and attention to detail and pattern recognition capabilities linked to
neurodiversity. Consequently, neurodiversity may be more strongly associated
with leadership in complex environments.
Novel situations that call for creative ways of defining and addressing
problems may also enable the leadership capacity of neurodiverse individuals.
As such problems are distinctive and nonroutine, they cannot be solved via the
general application of standardized knowledge (Baughman & Mumford,
1995). Instead, divergent and/or abstract thinking capabilities may be useful
for formulating and implementing innovative solutions appropriate for
novel problem situations (Mumford et al., 2000). Under these types of
conditions, the visual and spatial thinking capabilities stemming from neurodiversity
may be particularly advantageous. Consistent with research
findings that show that neurodiversity can lead to creativity and the generation
of novel solutions to problems (Wong et al., 2018), novel problem situations
may reinforce the link between the information processing competencies
associated with neurodiversity and leadership behavior, as they may provide
an opportunity for those cognitive strengths to manifest.
Closed systems with relatively impenetrable boundaries and that operate
with little influence from their surrounding environments (see Kast, James, &
Rosenzweig, 1972), such as an assembly line or R&D division of an organization,
may also serve as an enabling condition for the cognitive strengths
associated with neurodiversity to drive leadership behaviors. Given the
findings of leadership research which suggests that environments characterized
by complexity and novelty can exert cognitive stress on leaders, their
capacity for addressing other issues may be constrained (Mumford et al.,
2007).With cognitive resources dedicated to problem-solving behaviors, such
as environmental scanning, problem definition, and solution generation, fewer
resources may be available for addressing interpersonal issues. As such,
closed systems that reduce leaders’ cognitive load, especially the need for
maintaining external relationships, may allow concentration on the enactment
of more task-oriented behaviors (see Mumford et al., 2000). Further, the
navigation of these systems may be fueled by more procedural capabilities,
such as systematizing and the routine application of existing knowledge
(Baughman & Mumford, 1995). Because leadership may be less dependent
upon social acuity in closed systems, neurodiversity may be more strongly
associated with leadership in such environments. In summary, we offer the
following proposition regarding enabling conditions for some neurodiversity
characteristics as leadership behaviors:
Proposition 7: Contextual features (i.e., environmental complexity,
problem novelty, and the degree to which the system is closed) may
moderate the relationship between neurodiversity characteristics and the
extent to which leadership behaviors are enacted.
Our review of the research that has considered neurodiversity and leadership
suggests that neurodiverse individuals have remained on the periphery of this
body of work. To expand the conceptualization of whom organizations might
consider to be leaders or possessing leadership potential, we propose a model
that articulates the ways in which the unique capabilities of neurodiverse
individuals may result in a set of functional leadership behaviors that positively
influence both leader and follower outcomes. In doing so, we hope to
have taken a first step toward a more complex understanding of the value that
neurodiverse individuals could bring to organizations when given the chance
to hold formal leadership roles.
The proposed model uses a critical disability lens to reflect on cognitive
characteristics associated with neurodiversity as capabilities. In shifting away
from the disability as impairment perspective, we encourage the consideration
of neurodiverse individuals as leaders rather than solely as people in need of
leadership. Empirical research is needed to examine neurodiversity characteristics
as antecedents of cognitive leadership behavior. For example, studies
may examine the specific influences of each characteristic included in our
model (e.g., sensitivity and attention to detail, pattern recognition, visual
thinking, need for structure, and routine) on leadership behavior or their
cumulative effects on leadership and the capacity for influencing followers.
Alternatively, research may qualitatively explore the range of behaviors and
skills enacted by neurodiverse individuals in formal leadership roles and the
subsequent leader and follower outcomes. In general, research to situate such
individuals more squarely within the leadership literature would be useful
for advancing our understandings of leadership as well as leadership from
a neurodiverse perspective.
Our theorizing focuses on problem-focused cognition and highlights the
information processing capabilities of neurodiverse individuals to make the
case that these individuals may influence others through these capabilities. It is
important to note that our work is a starting point for more nuanced work on
neurodiverse leadership. For example, future research may explore the effects
of such capabilities on the development of mental models and the resultant
influence on others and leadership effectiveness. Because prior research has
identified an integrated set of cognitive skills that contribute to leader performance
(Mumford et al., 2017), researchers may also consider the predictive
validity of the leadership behaviors proposed here relative to other behaviors.
In doing so, we may gain insight into the indirect effects of neurodiverse
characteristics on leader and follower outcomes. Such research may also
advance our understanding of leader prototypicality through its emphasis on
the impact of cognitive attributes, rather than demographic category (i.e.,
person with a disability) on leader effectiveness.
Future research may also explore the conditions under which neurodiverse
individuals may emerge as leaders. Contrary to disability research that
identifies supports and accommodations to increase the participation of
neurodiverse individuals in leadership activities, studies to distinguish environments
that require cognitive skill for effective leadership would be
helpful for identifying the circumstances in which neurodiverse leaders would
be most effective. As these enabling conditions may effectively reduce
barriers to leadership for neurodiverse individuals and set them up for success,
another interesting avenue for future research would be to explore the impact
on disability disclosure, motivation to lead, or other individual differences that
may drive the enactment of cognitive leadership behaviors among neurodiverse
There are methodological considerations for future research on neurodiversity
and leadership as well. Although neurodiversity has been included in
the samples of prior work on disability and leadership, little attention has been
given to neurodiverse individuals as a distinct population. Yet, as neurodiverse
individuals as a group are not monolithic, research to investigate leadership
variations among people at different points along the neurodiversity continuum
may help to broaden our understanding of the capabilities associated
with neurodiversity and the effects in and on organizations. Given that prior
leadership research has primarily utilized a categorical approach to disability,
future research to employ more continuous measurements of neurodiversity
may also allow for greater inclusion of such individuals in leadership research.
It is important to note, however, that our model may not generalize to those
most severely affected by pervasive development disorders. Further, neurodiversity
may be comprised by other characteristics not represented in our
model and/or not associated with leadership. Subsequently, in the same way
that not all neurotypical individuals have the motivation or capacity to become
leaders, we acknowledge variation in the leadership capabilities of neurodiverse
individuals. Still, we contend that management scholars may overlook
a growing percentage of the workforce in their theorizing and empirical
research by not considering neurodiversity. Similarly, organizations may miss
a potentially valuable source of leadership talent by presuming cognitive
variations to be impairments across all forms of neurodiversity.
Our model offers practical guidance for designing organizational systems
to better identify and develop neurodiverse leaders. For example, leadership
profiles may be broadened to include cognitive capabilities that are demonstrative
of effective forecasting, problem-solving, or other forms of taskoriented
leadership. As such profiles may be used to evaluate current leaders
and the potential of future leaders, organizations may realize greater neurodiversity
in hiring and promotion processes and experience outcomes
derived from cognitive approaches to leadership. Incorporating neurodiversity
into existing leadership models may also help to guide leadership development
efforts in organizations. For example, experiential activities to
strengthen the abilities of neurodiverse individuals to apply their cognitive
skills in addition to developing more neurotypical skills for communication
and social interaction may be effective for cultivating their capacity for
leadership. Such developmental experiences may enhance self-perception and
motivation to lead as well as hone their capability for engaging in leadership
across different performance domains. Activities to expose neurotypical individuals
to complex and novel problem situations and practice application of
their cognitive skills to address such issues may enhance leaders’ effectiveness
across various domains and strengthen an organization’s collective capacity
It is our hope that this work challenges baseline assumptions and stereotypes
about neurodiverse individuals and broadens current conceptualizations
of who can be a leader to include neurodiverse individuals. We
contend that research to explore the intersection of neurodiversity and
leadership will help the management literature to better reflect changes in
current and future workforces and the breadth of competencies needed to
effectively lead through contemporary work environments. Additionally,
research that approaches neurodiversity as a cognitive capability may evolve
how people theorize about and study disability in organizations as well as
how they conceptualize and practice leadership in organizations.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
Quinetta Roberson https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5997-6425
- We thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.
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Associate Editor: Lucy Gilson
Submitted Date: June 26, 2020
Revised Submission Date: December 7, 2020
Acceptance Date: December 12, 2020
Quinetta Roberson is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Management
and Psychology at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus broadly on
diversity, organizational justice and leadership and more specifically, on understanding
how organizations can develop capabilities and enhance performance through diversity,
equity and inclusion. She attained her Ph.D. in organizational behavior from
the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University of Maryland, College Park.
Narda R. Quigley is the Mahoney Family Endowed Professor in Business and
a Professor of Management at the Villanova School of Business. Her research interests
include work groups and teams, multilevel issues, motivation, emergent and crosscultural
leadership, and diversity and inclusion in organizations. She attained her Ph.D.
in organizational behavior from the Robert H. Smith School of Business at University
of Maryland, College Park.
Kamil Vickers is a second-year student currently attending Villanova University,
where he is pursuing a degree in political science and economics. He hopes to take the
skills learned both inside and outside of the classroom to help youth from under
resourced areas like his hometown, Newark, New Jersey. Mr.Vickers’ keen interest in
finding equal opportunity for all is what originally drew him to this project.
Isabella Bruck is an international student at the Villanova School of Business, where
she is pursuing a degree in Management and International Business and a possible
concentration in Consulting. Though she is German, she grew up in India and Singapore.
The global perspectives that this upbringing bestowed on her sparked her
interest in research.