Could neurodivergent thinking be the key ingredient for leadership in a complex, interconnected world?
It’s no secret that the world is facing bigger, more complex challenges than ever before. The need for effective and innovative leadership have never been more important.
Recently I had the pleasure of taking part in UNSW’s AGSM Governance for Social Impact course, which dived into some of the reasons why these problems are so difficult to solve, and what we as leaders in the social impact space can do about it. One of the key themes of the course was a topic that has developed into quite the special interest area for me - systems theory.
Understanding Systems Theory
Systems Theory is an interdisciplinary framework that seeks to comprehend and explain the interconnectedness and interdependence of various elements within a complex whole. In essence, it provides a lens through which we can view the world as a network of relationships, where each component influences and is influenced by others.
This approach goes beyond reductionist thinking and linear cause-and-effect analysis enabling a more holistic understanding of intricate systems and their behaviors.
The Emergence of Systems Thinking
Although systems thinking has been present in scientific and academic circles for decades, its significance has gained traction in recent times, particularly in the realm of social impact. Many seasoned professionals are only beginning to grasp the profound implications of systems thinking in their respective fields.
This approach challenges conventional linear models and offers a new perspective on solving multifaceted societal challenges. By recognising the interconnectedness of economic, social and environmental factors, leaders can develop more sustainable and effective solutions.
What happens in the absence of Systems Thinking?
One of my favourite examples of what happens when we try to solve problems without taking a systems approach - and a great story to engage our participants at FutureTech on this topic - is the infamous ‘Operation Cat Drop’.
In the 1950s, people in Borneo suffered a malaria outbreak and sought support from WHO (World Health Organization). WHO took action, spraying large amounts of an insecticide (DDT) around the island in hope of killing off the malaria carrying mosquitos
While WHO were successful in killing off the mosquitos, the insecticide also affected other insects on the island that were then eaten by the island's geckos. The geckos were largely unaffected by the poisonous insecticide however their predator - cats - were not.
The cats ate the infected geckos and were killed in large numbers resulting in an population explosion of rats. With more rats came outbreaks of the bubonic plague and it wasn’t long before the people of Borneo were back in touch with WHO to help solve the problem their solution created.
This time, WHO’s solution came in the form of airdropping thousands of cats onto the island to help combat the rat infestation. While this solution helped to control the rat population, it too had significantly unintended consequences on the environment of Borneo likely still felt today.
So, have I convinced you of the importance of taking a systems approach to solving complex problems? Have I sparked a new special interest you will hyperfocus on for many hours ironically ignoring your very own system’s (your body) need for food, sleep and sunlight?
If so, welcome to the club!
If not, keep reading. I still have some time to bring you over to the dark side.
I digress, back to the main purpose of this piece…
Unlocking Neurodivergent Perspectives
One fascinating dimension that emerged from conversations and learnings during the course was the potential of neurodivergent perspectives in leadership and systems thinking.
Why? We are natural born system thinkers. We see the world through its connections and contradictions.
People often say that autistic people are detail oriented, and we are but I would debate the general consensus around what ‘detail oriented’ means. I would argue that (and this is very much my own opinion here) autistic people become detail oriented after analyzing the entire system and picking out the parts that don’t make sense - the small details that are often overlooked by those who see the world in objects and things.
To others, sure this looks like obsessing over details, but like many elements of the neurodivergent experience - they cannot all be explained or understood by simply observing a person's behavior,
I love this video on innovation that visually demonstrates the point I am trying to make:
Tech is great, but what else?
Some businesses are beginning to realize the untapped potential of neurodivergent-talent, with companies like Google launching programs designed for neurodivergent people to enter into the workforce.
The natural affinity of the neurodivergent brain for pattern recognition and analysis make us excellent in STEM fields and often opportunities are focused on technology. While many neurodivergent people will go into careers in technology, as software engineers or game developers, many (like me) will not.
While *somewhat slow* progress is being made in embracing autistic people into governance and leadership roles, these kinds of opportunities are often concentrated within organizations who focus on autism-related issues. However, a broader perspective suggests that the potential of autistic leadership spans across sectors, industries and organizations.
Our innate ability to think in systems equips us to excel in roles that demand a deep understanding of complex interactions such as environmental sustainability, healthcare, education and more.
Embracing Autistic Leadership
The question then arises: Why should autistic people be considered for leadership roles across the board? The answer lies in our natural affinity for systems thinking.
Autistic people often (not always!) possess an intuitive ability to grasp intricate connections between variables, seeing the bigger picture while paying attention to details many others overlook. This positions us well for navigating complex challenges, discovering new solutions and supporting real sustainable change, particularly in the realm of social impact.
Another interesting way of empowering autistic leaders that has been gaining traction and recognition is the Autistic Social Entrepreneurship. The movement is dedicated to both supporting autistic social entrepreneurs themselves and building the capacity of the systems around them to better meet the needs of autistic social entrepreneurs.
Spearheaded by the formidable Dr Sharon Zivkovic, the Centre for Autistic Social Entrepreneurship is an initiative of Wicked Labs. I am personally very excited to see how the center progresses over the next year.
As systems thinking gain prominence in addressing contemporary societal issues, the value of neurodivergent perspectives cannot be underestimated. By embracing autistic people in leadership roles beyond traditional domains, organizations can harness our innate systems thinking capabilities to drive positive, sustainable change across diverse sectors.
Ultimately in doing so, businesses not only have the opportunity to champion inclusivity, but also to tap into a wellspring of untapped human potential that may just reshape our approach to leadership and social impact for the better.