By Lisa Blosser
Partner, Next Step Partners
I’ve always had a deep admiration for entrepreneurs—the trailblazers who boldly embrace risk to create something unprecedented. Their courage and visionary spirit propel the world to new heights, shaping the future in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
In the book The Intelligent Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School (HBS) expresses a fundamental belief: entrepreneurship is not merely a set of skills but a distinct way of thinking and acting. It involves the ‘relentless pursuit of opportunities, irrespective of the resources currently at one’s disposal’. That takes courage.
However, it wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, HBS shifted its focus to groom individuals for Corporate America, sidelining entrepreneurship. At that time, entrepreneurship was viewed as a ‘personality disorder,’ and entrepreneurs were labeled as ‘chronic malcontents.’ Ironically, this perspective may be spot on.
Enter the Explorer gene—a concept suggesting that many highly successful leaders, CEOs, athletes, and creators share traits associated with what is now labeled as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD, considered a ‘disorder of adaptation,’ may have played a crucial role in the survival of early populations.
Those with the ADHD ‘Explorer gene’ exhibited traits like restlessness, curiosity, risk-taking, hyperfocus, and rapid information processing—qualities that proved essential in discovering new lands and resources during times of scarcity.
This is why the genetic trait of ADHD (the long allele of the dopamine transporter gene – a variant of the D4 receptor gene called 7R) – is found in groups with a long history of migration, including far flung locations that required an ability to wander for thousands of miles in search of new resources.
The survival of people, as well as teams, depends on characteristics of both Explorers, and ‘Settlers’.
Settlers are particularly useful when times are good and resources aren’t limited. They tend to ‘what is’ vs. charting new territory.
In today’s complex and resource-scarce environment, the Explorer gene is again, essential. However, this divergent approach is often criticized more than it is honored, especially in mature organizations, or those where settlers dominate.
Unfortunately, this results in Explorer’s not feeling psychologically safe to share their unique ideas. Google’s Project Aristotle research underscores the significance of psychological safety in diverse teams, and goes so far as to say that without this safety, you don’t harness the power of the diversity on the team, rendering it an exercise in appearances.
This echoes the experience of Individuals with ADHD traits who share that they often feel valued for their innovative ideas but simultaneously shamed for not conforming to linear norms. This duality often leads Explorers to chart their own paths, creating spaces where their uniqueness is celebrated rather than criticized. This can range from taking their novel ideas elsewhere, to starting their own companies.
When I have interviewed those with ‘ADHD type traits’ about their work in teams, I’ve heard the following:
“I felt like the group wanted all my novel and forward-thinking ideas, but also shunned me for the traits that don’t match to someone who is more linear. That was painful and resulted in me feeling like I was being used, under-appreciated and devalued.”
“The organization loved when I would swoop in and solve a complex issue, but they often promoted people whose main traits were completing tasks that don’t move the system forward. It was confusing and deflating.”
To fully appreciate the gifts of the Explorer gene, it’s crucial not to suppress its tendencies but to harness and value them. Here are common traits associated with Explorers and the ‘gifts’ that can be harnessed:
An important note: It’s best not to assume someone has ADHD, which runs along a spectrum and is evolving in definition.
Those who do have an official diagnosis may not feel safe disclosing it—and in many cases, that may be wise. Instead, a good practice is to treat everyone as though they have special gifts you might not understand.
An exercise we conduct with many teams is asking: what opens you up vs. shuts you down? What is most startling is that people largely come up with the same responses for each. Here are a few.
Opens Me Up:
Shuts Me Down:
The funny irony is that while people tend to share the same items on the ‘shut me down’ list, very few people believe they are doing any of those things to others. That’s how tricky this awareness to ‘belonging cues’ can be. We don’t notice when we do it to someone else, but we absolutely notice it when it happens to us.
The work of the team, then, is to increase its awareness of its own implicit reward system—how the team responds to various ideas, and what it reinforces—including what it ignores.
Does the collective response reward novel thinking or risk taking? Or does it encourage going along with ideas and keeping harmony?
Challenge the team to learn about its own tendencies and to respond in ways that create increased psychological safety, belonging and inclusivity.
Most of the organizations we work with are interested in fostering innovation and engagement, and don’t realize how heavily team dynamics contribute to this.
Fostering open discussions, embracing diverse perspectives, and addressing biases enhances psychological safety and inclusivity. Celebrating, rather than critiquing, diverse working styles unlocks the team’s full potential, catalyzing transformative impact throughout the organization.