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Neurodivergent Women in Leadership

A tale of my late in life diagnosis, and how it’s since influenced my leadership.

(I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice, but my shared experience)


“Why don’t you just relax? It’s not that serious.”

“It’s not personal…stop being so sensitive.”

“You need to learn when to speak up and when to let it go.”

“It doesn’t affect you. Why are you concerned? Just stay in your lane…”


The dagger? “You need to learn to care less.” 

My response: “That’s like telling me not to breathe.”


hyper woman at work

 

These are merely a snippet of the phrases directed to me throughout the past three-and-a-half years in leadership. There are countless others that often left me in complete disbelief and shock. How could those, trusted to lead and care for others, to support and develop them, seem so calloused and removed? Even now, I think of the evenings I sat in contemplation and turmoil, wondering why I couldn’t “just let it go.” I spent countless hours running through every justification plausible but, at the end of the night, I couldn’t see how one could dissociate so apathetically; people who led for decades, walked away at the end of the workday, with little remorse. 


As I concluded my first year of leadership, I began to recognize the limits of my mental capacity. Bearing that burden of caring, when others appeared not to, and filling all the mental gaps of empathy, all while leading a team through a worldwide pandemic…it took a lot out of me. Add on the responsibilities and priorities of my role as a mother of three, a wife, a daughter, sister, and beyond, and I started to shame myself for not being able to do it all. I have ALWAYS been able to do it all, to push through NO MATTER WHAT. Until YOU CAN’T. It was then that I was resigned to look for the signs of burn out, signs of anxiety, trouble focusing and relaxing. As I read through article after article, a pattern of women hitting their wall emerged. 


On the other side of that wall? A life-altering dual diagnosis: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, aka ADHD, and in tandem, Autism, “ADHD”. Reading through heartfelt posts, were women who went from relieved, to validated, to devastated, to angry and beyond, experiencing a full grief cycle. But wait, wasn’t ADHD just for hyper boys? Yet, here we are in 2024, and girls’ diagnosis of ADHD in childhood is a third of boys. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Research suggests boys are more likely than girls to receive an ADHD diagnosis — but that doesn’t mean the condition affects more males than females. In fact, women are more commonly diagnosed with ADHD later in life.” And there it was, the BRICK landed squarely in my lap. Women’s hyperactivity is more likely to be internalized through racing thoughts, anxious tendencies, lack of boundaries, people pleasing tendencies, over-planning…and the one that kicked the back of my knees…a strong sense of justice, coupled with a rigid standard of ethics. 


I was diagnosed at 38. I finally had an answer to many of the frustrations I encountered, professionally and personally.  I didn’t fit the “ADHD Mold and Model”…I slept fantastic, I savored books and consumed them with fervor, I performed extremely well academically, I kept appointments, I excelled in my career, kept up with the kids’ events…meals…you name it. But I was constantly exhausted, drifting in on two wheels to every event (late much?), overcommitting and regretting it every dang time, overperforming to prove I was capable (to myself and to others?). I interrupted people routinely, tried to be everything for everyone else, but neglected myself, and procrastinated like it was my middle name. Please don’t get me started on my nemesis, laundry. (If you’re screaming in agreement, or sitting in silent realization while reading this, sending you the biggest of hugs. Grace goes so a long way in this journey-you know the grace you so freely dole out to others, but rob yourself of…yea that…) 


While I do wish I had an earlier diagnosis, could’ve saved me some consternation and heartache, it came at a time when I was able to leverage my deeper understanding to support, encourage, and implement measures to advocate for my ND (neurodivergent) staff. This meant frequent communication about balancing their workloads and shifting focus from volume to interest. Were they equipped with the tools and information they needed? Did they have challenging work that interested them, and weren’t spinning their wheels in the daily routine churn? (Before I get the comments - but what about everyone else - yes, of course they received similar support). Did we need to discuss flexibility in work hours, and telework? Beyond that, advocacy in leadership extends past those in your supervisory chain to encompass the scope of impact, like expanding and reforming policies and practices companywide to be supportive of all facets of employees. 


woman at work

 

Why now? Why am I sharing? Because I want you to feel less alone. To serve as a calming voice which helps you quiet those thoughts of self-deprecation. You are not alone in this struggle. It’s not JUST you. You are NOT broken. You are worthy and important.

My entire professional career, I have been told to slow down, to let others catch up, to give them a chance, to stop getting ahead. In reality, I recognized patterns light-years ahead of many, and my professional progress, or “getting ahead,” was not to be perceived as right; no, it was to avoid catastrophic failure. Sheer frustration surged through my veins as I couldn’t understand how others didn’t see the imminent train barreling straight towards us. Proactive and strategic planning is critical to the peace of predictability as reactive measures are disruptors to an ADHDer’s nervous system. Now, I understand that I need to try to connect the dots, and to communicate more in line with non-ND thought patterns, i.e. the “cradle to grave” process. I recall existing in bone-deep exhaustion from living in constant adaptation mode; always needing to be the one to change, to mask, morphing into whatever was most pleasing to others…I was surviving, not thriving. 


I hope you will wade into this community of women healing together. I’ve learned that the more we validate other’s struggles, and the more we speak up and out, the stronger the collective is. More women are taking on leadership roles, and in doing so, are shifting the sisterhood’s experience forward, creating inclusive spaces as they rise, and bringing others with them. I think it is important to understand, that while many jokingly assert that ADHD is a superpower, (yes, there are most certainly strengths), it is still very much a disability. Accommodations are critical to balancing our drive: meeting our need for routine while allowing flexibility around breaks, start times, working hours, PTO, and so forth. 


In sharing I hope to chip away at the stigma surrounding an ADHD diagnosis, from the misperception of laziness to the skepticism of diagnosis. In our society the label can be accompanied with a sense of loss, failure,, and shame. However, I am here to tell you that a proper diagnosis and treatment plan OPENS doors and is worth the discomfort. 

I’ll never apologize for seeking justice, and you shouldn’t either. Those “rigid” morales are just what we need, unwavering integrity, and the courage to speak up in the face of silence. Keep disrupting, and know you have a community of women, full of grit, fire, and curiosity cheering you on.  


“A professional troublemaker is someone who critiques the world, the shoddy systems, and the people who refuse to do better.” Luvvie Ajayi Jones, Author, “Professional Troublemaker: the Fear-Fighter Manual”


woman stand in front of an orange color wall


 

About the Author:


Tiffany Severs hails from the Shenandoah Valley with a deep love for the mountain tops and river valleys. Her drive to protect the environment was fostered at a young age and expanded at Roanoke College where she graduated with a degree in Environmental Science and Biology. Tiffany embodies compassionate servant leadership and strives to set this example for her three beautiful children in all they do. When she is not breaking glass ceilings, you can find Tiffany hiking trails, enjoying the Eastern Shore or cheering for her friends and family in everything they do.


To connect with Tiffany, hop on over to LinkedIn:Tiffany (Wright) Severs | LinkedIn

 

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