autism and the cult of leadership

A guy named Ken Gosnell just wrote in Forbes about “What My Son With Autism Taught Me About Being A CEO.” Gosnell describes himself as the “Chief Servant Officer” of CEO Experience, the kind of management consulting company that holds “executive retreats”, uses cutting-edge technology to deliver a made-up “leadership score”, and posts on its blog about what every CEO could learn from Jesus.

Vanity Fair recently published a good article about Harvard Business School’s role in creating that particlar genre of nonsense.

Rather, it starts all the way back in 1977, when Sandberg was just eight years old and the U.S. economy was still recovering from the longest and deepest recession since the end of World War II. That’s the year that Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik wrote an article entitled, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in America’s most influential business journal, Harvard Business Review. For years, Zaleznik argued, the country had been over-managed and under-led. The article helped spawn the annual multi-billion-dollar exercise in nonsense known as the Leadership Industry, with Harvard as ground zero. The article gave Harvard Business School a new raison d’être in light of the fact that the product it had been selling for decades—managers—was suddenly no longer in vogue. Henceforth, it would be molding leaders.

LOL “parable of the sadhu”:

Let’s be clear about this: in business, as in life, there isn’t always one correct answer. So the teaching of a decision-making philosophy that is deliberate and systematic, but still open-minded, is hardly controversial on its face. But to help students overcome the fear of sounding stupid and being remorselessly critiqued, they are reminded, in case after case—and with emphasis—that there are no right answers. And that has had the unfortunate effect of opening up a chasm of moral equivalence in too many of their graduates.

And yet, there are obviously many situations where some answers are more right than others. Especially when it comes to moral issues like privacy, around which both Sandberg and Facebook have a history of demonstrating poor judgment. While H.B.S. is correct in its assertion that it produces people who can make decisions, the fact of the matter is that they have never emphasized how to make the right ones.

Consider investment banker Bowen McCoy’s “The Parable of the Sadhu,” published in Harvard Business Review in 1977, and again 20 years later. It addressed what seemed, at least to the H.B.S. crowd, to be an ethical dilemma. McCoy was on a trip to the Himalayas when his expedition encountered a sadhu, or holy man, near death from hypothermia and exposure. Their compassion extended only to clothing the man and leaving him in the sun, before continuing on to the summit. One of McCoy’s group saw a “breakdown between the individual ethic and the group ethic,” and was gripped by guilt that the climbers had not made absolutely sure that the sadhu made it down the mountain alive. McCoy’s response: “Here we are . . . at the apex of one of the most powerful experiences of our lives. . . . What right does an almost naked pilgrim who chooses the wrong trail have to disrupt our lives?”

McCoy later felt guilt over the incident, but his parable nevertheless illustrated the extent to which aspiring managers might justify putting personal accomplishment ahead of collateral damage—including the life of a dying man. The fact that H.B.S. enthusiastically incorporated said parable into its curriculum says far more about the fundamental mindset of the school than almost anything else that has come out of it. The “dilemma” was perfectly in line with the thinking at H.B.S. that an inability to clearly delineate the right choice in business isn’t the fault of the chooser but rather a fundamental characteristic of business, itself.

It’s funny that it’s a morally perverse, IRL version of Peter Singer’s parable of the drowning child:

It’s sort of sad to watch someone steeped in this ethos struggle with cognitive dissonance.

Things don’t always go as planned. My life and leadership style changed the day that my youngest son was diagnosed with autism and apraxia. I have experienced a variety of leadership losses and business setbacks, but nothing prepared me for the difficult news that my son would struggle to develop and speak for a significant portion of his childhood.

Kyston was born four months before I launched my startup. The business was taking up every hour and every ounce of effort that I had to make it successful. During the end of that first year in business is when Kyston was diagnosed, and it was then that my wife and I were told that because of the severity of his condition, there was a high probability that he would never talk. Since then, I found that Kyston and my business have a lot in common. They both have amazing potential, but I often have to look to see what others may not.

I also found that Kyston taught me how to be a better CEO. Here are four lessons my son taught me that I believe every leader should know.

An important lesson of Buddhism is that the truth is nonverbal, and we make ourselves suffer by clinging to ideas. Right from the start, he’s framing his son’s existence as a “loss” and a “setback”, relative to goals that existed only in his head. Is it true that his son “struggles to develop,” or does his son develop differently? Will his son’s struggles actually be inherent to autism, or will they come from his social environment?

It’s not that his son has amazing potential, which is self-evident to him. He has to look for it.

It’s interesting that he says his son taught him lessons, when his son probably had no such intention. He’s drawing conclusions from his son’s behavior, making interpretations, and then treating the one meaning he came up with as an inherent part of reality. His son’s autism is all about him.

1. Difference can be better than sameness.

Every leadership path is different. Great CEOs often find their path and walk it with tenacity and courage. It’s always easy to compare yourself to others — but don’t. Kyston isn’t concerned about the path of others. He’s going to develop in his way on his time. He’s different, and he’s okay with his differences. His difference is what makes him who he is. It’s an amazing irony to me: I always wanted to make a difference and celebrate the unique differences of my business, but I used to desire to have a son who was just like everyone else. There was a turning point for me when I embraced his differences as strengths. It reminded me that the world is changed by people who can see things differently. A different point of view should be celebrated and enjoyed. The journey of difference is not usually an easy journey, but it’s a powerful one, and it’s one that many CEOs and businesses must walk if they are to be successful.

This is an implicit admission that autism is a social discrimination problem. On a deep level, he wants everyone to be the same. Now that he’s forced to accept his own child, the cognitive dissonance has to resolve itself: a leader needs market differentiation! By “not usually an easy journey”, he means the mistreatment everyone knows “different” people undergo. Rather than making society more tolerant, he mythologizes about the misunderstood innovator who prevails in the end. It’s ok to be different if it means you’re a hero. You have to be the hero.

2. Celebrate your smallest of steps.

Small progress can lead to big breakthroughs. Breakthroughs may seem to come in a day, but they have to be worked on daily. I remember being very discouraged month after month when it seemed as if nothing with Kyston was changing. He seemed to be stuck. All of the therapies and all of our efforts didn’t seem to be making a difference. It would’ve been easy to quit trying. But Kyston kept at it in his own small ways. We celebrated every success, even when it was small. I learned from this that a success that’s celebrated is more likely to be repeated. I’ll never forget the day when we realized that the boy who couldn’t speak was understanding and reading words in different languages. Business often works in a similar way: Small progress can often lead to significant breakthroughs. It might take months or even years for a business to be successful, but it takes daily work. Keep working and keep making progress even if it doesn’t seem like much is changing.

I believe in gradual progress, but I wonder how much this is about a failure to be observant. After all, his business was taking up all of his energy. His son learned two languages under his nose, while he thought nothing was going on. It takes time and attention to notice intelligence in others.

3. Believe in yourself.

You can usually do more than others think you can. Kyston has always been able to do more than others thought he could. He never tested well, but the tests he took never measured what was in his heart or his ambition. The tests told us that he couldn’t do it, but his will said that he would. I learned from him that every CEO must believe in themselves, even when the world tells them that they can’t do it. CEOs might fail and fail again. Don’t let your failures or setbacks ever make you think that you can’t do it. Sometimes only the CEOs who have the will and the determination to know that they will succeed find real success in life.

I agree that believing in ourselves would benefit autistic people. “Believe in yourself” isn’t the message I’d like non-autistic people to take from us, though. I’d like normal people to be less sure of themselves, less dismissive.

4. Find your team of believers.

I’ve found that there are two kinds of people in Kyston’s life: believers and borrowers. There are those who believe in his possibilities and others who just borrow him for a moment. As his parent, I’m passionate about putting together a team of only believers for him. These believers have the same drive and desire to see him succeed that we do. My wife and I have always believed that Kyston would not only speak but also that he will grow up to be a public speaker and be able to speak to people in a multitude of languages. My son is now beginning to talk. Every day, he surprises me with what he’s learning and how he’s communicating.

Wouldn’t a believer already expect his son is learning a lot, without being surprised?

From his dad’s point of view, the people in his son’s life are those that temporarily watch over him in some capacity. He’s seeing the environment his son grows up in as a hiring problem, which is sort of warped.

Having super high expectations placed on you all the time just makes you crazy in different ways.

His kid is 7, and he’s worried about his public speaking career. For me, debate was like an autism haven, and the ability to speak comfortably in public has been extremely helpful. I’m paid for that as much as for autistic attention to detail. It can feel nice, like an uninterrupted Aspie ramble. But that’s because words are my thing. I would’ve fared a lot worse under the expectation that I become a great visual artist.

His goals for the child are too specific and impersonal. He would want those things for the kid no matter what the kid’s actual personality was like. It would be healthier to have an open attitude and follow the kid’s interests where they lead. You have better outcomes when you focus on the process.

Kyston taught me that every great business needs a team of believers as well. I’ve learned that CEOs must find the right people who believe in the product and mission of the organization. There are times when CEOs may need that team around them to keep going. When CEOs find those right people, the possibilities can be limitless. My son taught me the principle that when the team gets better, the organization gets better. Don’t settle for nonbelievers on your team. The nonbelievers may only slow down your progress.

I’m glad I don’t work with this person. He’s looking for yes-men, a cult of positivity. Autistic bluntness is one of my strengths at work, because I’ll explicitly complain about elephant in the room sorts of things, which everyone else is too socially sophisticated to do. I can write impartial memos about office politics issues, always framed in terms of what’s actually best for the business. Autism and the Jehovah’s Witness upbringing make it easier to be the dissenter. This guy is too normal. He’d create problems for me, whine that I work from home, “not a team player”, I didn’t give him the ride vibe when he tried to talk about sports.

He’s using his son to draw conclusions about the workplace that make it harder for autistic people to succeed there, while self-congratulating.

CEOs, more than most people, stand in the way of the kind of socialism autistic people actually need. Imagine free healthcare, universal basic income, your own apartment, good public transportation, all without needing a job, just because you’re human and your dignity is important. Jesus threw out the money lenders and proclaimed the meek shall inherit the earth.

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