ADHD makes for better entrepreneurs


Just ask Sir Richard Branson, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neeleman.

Entrepreneurship researcher Johan Wiklund of Syracuse University was alerted to the link between ADHD and entrepreneurship after family experiences led him to learn more about mental health issues. This encouraged him to look at how ADHD can be a positive influence. We spoke to Wiklund about his research.

ResearchGate: What inspired you to study ADHD and entrepreneurship?

Wiklund: I have been involved in entrepreneurship research for 20 years. A couple of years ago we had some mental health issues in the family for the first time. This opened my eyes. After learning more about mental disorders, I began to see links between ADHD and entrepreneurship. I asked some psychiatrist and psychologist friends and they thought it made sense. I conducted a case study with 16 entrepreneurs who all had a formal ADHD diagnoses. This case study confirmed many of my hunches and set me off on the course I am now pursuing.

RG: What makes a good entrepreneur? 

Wiklund: It is virtually impossible to define what makes a good entrepreneur, because as an entrepreneur you can choose to do whatever you want, for whatever reason you want. So, first you need to have your own definition of what a ‘good’ entrepreneur is. But fundamentally, you must be willing to try out new things even if you are uncertain, be willing to accept failure, and to get back up when you fail.

RG: What are your results so far? What is it about ADHD that could benefit or lead someone to become an entrepreneur?

Wiklund: Hyperactivity and impulsivity among people with ADHD can be positive for entrepreneurship. Impulsivity is particularly interesting because it is such a negatively loaded word. But it is impulsivity that triggers people with ADHD to act and take risks where other people would wait and see. They also tend to look at the potential gains rather than fear the potential losses, which helps them keep going and to keep coming back.

RG: Are there downsides as well?

Wiklund: The attention deficit aspect of ADHD is negative unlike the impulsivity and hyperactivity aspects. It seems that people high on the attention deficit dimension shy away from entrepreneurship.

For practicing entrepreneurs with ADHD, organization is a problem. Every person that I have spoken to with ADHD hates bookkeeping and has a very hard time with it. This is why they need people around them for support.

RG: Does this apply to people who medicate their ADHD symptoms?

Wiklund: ADHD symptoms can be difficult if they become too extreme. If this happens medication is of course helpful. However, from what I have seen, entrepreneurs with ADHD typically don’t medicate when they want to be creative and generate ideas, but do medicate when they meet with customers, or need to be focused on tasks that they consider boring.

RG: Are there any famous entrepreneurs that have ADHD?

Wiklund: Yes, there are several famous entrepreneurs with ADHD. It is hard to get confirmation on who actually has a formal diagnosis, but it seems that David Neeleman of JetBlue and Richard Branson of Virgin do have confirmed formal diagnoses.

RG: Are there other examples of disorders benefiting a person’s pursuit?

Wiklund: People with dyslexia are also attracted to and can do very well in entrepreneurship. But the link between dyslexia and entrepreneurship is less straightforward. There is nothing directly related to reading difficulty that makes you suited for entrepreneurship. It may be other neurological differences that matter, such as creativity.

RG: What studies have you done so far?

Wiklund: To date I have carried out three primary studies. The first was a case study of 16 entrepreneurs with ADHD diagnoses. This helped me get a basic understanding of how ADHD symptoms manifest in entrepreneurship and develop a conceptual model. The second study was a survey of MBA alumni. The third study is a survey of successful entrepreneurs. Preliminary results suggest that ADHD symptoms are directly linked to behaving more entrepreneurially within their organizations, and positively linked to growth and performance. Very interesting findings!

Featured image courtesy of flickr.