Do some disabilities predispose individuals for leadership?

Churchill_portrait_NYP_45063I thought I’d share links to a couple of excellent articles for your reading pleasure that postulate specific advantages to two hidden disabilities in the formation of successful leaders.

The first article, The Upside of Depression was published in the New York Times Magazine in February, 2010. Genes associated with decreased serotonin activity in the brain have been linked to depression and anxiety. Recent studies have also shown increased activity in a region of the brain (ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) in patients with depression associated with the ability to maintain attention. As a result, people who are predisposed to obsessing or “ruminating” about specific problems may have a unique ability to marshal their attention for the purpose of analyzing and breaking down complex problems. To quote from the author…

But the reliance on the VLPFC doesn’t just lead us to fixate on our depressing situation; it also leads to an extremely analytical style of thinking. That’s because rumination is largely rooted in working memory, a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness. When people rely on working memory — and it doesn’t matter if they’re doing long division or contemplating a relationship gone wrong — they tend to think in a more deliberate fashion, breaking down their complex problems into their simpler parts.

The bad news is that this deliberate thought process is slow, tiresome and prone to distraction; the prefrontal cortex soon grows exhausted and gives out. Andrews and Thomson see depression as a way of bolstering our feeble analytical skills, making it easier to pay continuous attention to a difficult dilemma. The downcast mood and activation of the VLPFC are part of a “coordinated system” that, Andrews and Thomson say, exists “for the specific purpose of effectively analyzing the complex life problem that triggered the depression.” If depression didn’t exist — if we didn’t react to stress and trauma with endless ruminations — then we would be less likely to solve our predicaments. Wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.

The second article, The Science of Success was featured in the Atlantic. Here’s the premise discussed in the article…an interesting thought for Christians in the adoption and foster care movements:

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

shutterstock_171314369One final observation…In an earlier blog post, I shared my observation that a disproportionate number of church leaders, especially senior pastors-met the criteria for having ADHD. In my practice, I see a lot of kids from a very exclusive private school for boys who are being treated for ADHD. I started questioning myself as to why I was diagnosing more kids with ADHD from this school compared to others in our area. The answer was readily apparent. Most of the boys had fathers (or mothers) who were entrepreneurs or senior leaders in their respective companies…after all, these are the families with the money to pay the $25,000 in annual tuition. The vast majority of the families had at least one parent who was treated for ADHD, or would have been treated today based upon difficulties they experienced growing up.

I recently came across an interesting study that provides the first direct genetic link between ADHD and entrepreneurial ability. And many people aren’t aware that one of our most revered Presidents took Dexedrine for ADHD while he was in office.

I’m not so sure about the impact of visible disabilities upon ability to perform effectively in leadership positions, but there’s interesting evidence to suggest that traits associated with hidden disabilities may be very adaptive for some leaders.

Photo of Sir Richard Branson courtesy of Prometheus72 /


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About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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