Leaders with Learning Difficulties
No Difficulty Here
Having a learning difficulty often makes for a more visionary and innovative business leader. ORLA CONNOLLY chats to two entrepreneurs proving that very point.
High powered entrepreneurs are praised for their ability to resolve problems using methods unthought-of by others. It's this ability to think differently and to challenge the status quo that makes them an asset. Surprisingly for many, some of the most successful entrepreneurs and industry leaders celebrated today are labelled with having learning difficulties, showing that such 'disabilities' can often be a hidden gift.
A learning difficulty is a neurological disorder stemming from how a person's brain is programmed to process information differently. Contrary to common belief, having a learning difficulty has no affect on actual intelligence. While a person may have trouble processing numbers or letters, their understanding of the information itself is unaffected. Two of the most common forms of learning difficulties affecting adults in Ireland are dyslexia and dyspraxia. While dyslexia can affect an individual's ability to read or interpret words, dyspraxia causes issues in activities that require coordination and movement.
Many notable entrepreneurs who possess an intellectual difficulty don't see their so-called 'disorder' as a negative at all. “The way I look at dyslexia is that it's not an issue or a disorder people have, it describes the style of brain people have,” says Ross O'Neill, Managing Director of R-GON Customer Insights. “Even saying that it's a learning difficulty, I think is all wrong.”
For O'Neill, an ambassador for the Dyslexia Association of Ireland and director of two enterprises, dyslexia is not a disorder that obstructs his performance. Like many others, he views dyslexia as a different style of thinking, one that isn't catered for in traditional education. “I certainly have no problem learning, I just learn in my own way,” he says. “I call it a learning difference. That's why I don't say I have dyslexia, I say I'm dyslexic and for me it describes my style of brain. It's like someone saying they're musical or artistic.”
This sentiment is echoed by numerous entrepreneurs who claim that their success isn't in spite of their learning difficulty, but rather because of the character traits and advantages associated with their learning difference.
For those with dyslexia or dyspraxia, early education presents countless issues. The most common complaint is that the school system exclusively caters for the traditional academic child, leaving creative minds or different learners to be labelled as intellectually deficient.
“The school system is built for one type of mind and that's the type of mind that works for an industrial world,” says Avril Murphy, a long time catering industry professional who has recently launched her own pop-up cooking school in Smithfield, Dublin. “If you don’t fit into that system you were considered defective. My thought process is not defective. To me it is a different way of taking in and processing information.” Due to her dyspraxia, Murphy often experienced issues with balance, coordination and thought processing. “In school I was termed a daydreamer and was berated for staring out windows and not paying attention,” she says.
Turning a Difficulty into an Advantage
Yet this adversity in education is believed to build strong problem-solving capabilities that are considered vital in the world of business. O'Neill notes: “Throughout school people that were dyslexic constantly had to think outside the box. They constantly had to come up with different ways to figure out things and deal with situations because being dyslexic, 99 per cent of the time you're in a difficult situation.” Many dyslexic entrepreneurs credit their learning difficulty for making them adaptable to stressful situations along with being able to handle rejection and adversity early in their careers.
For Murphy, one consequence of her dyspraxia is heightened sensory abilities, which became an asset when she moved into the food industry and progressed to a head chef position. She says: “I loved the timing and the finesse involved, the flavours and how I could remember taste and recreate that along with the smells and the textures.”
Other typical characteristics displayed by different learners include creativity and high quality social interaction. This combination of resourcefulness, creativity and social skills are essential elements in the profile of any successful business person, according to O'Neill. “When you mix all of those into a pot, it kind of spits out a typical entrepreneur in many ways.”
When it comes to the negative side of having a learning difficulty, such as issues with reading or writing, modern technology has filled the gap that many hindrances have created. Computers, laptops and iPads have become not just common practice, but necessary for the boardroom and their widespread use is making it significantly easier for people with dyslexia to operate at the highest level of industry.
“Your eyesight is a non-issue as long as you have your glasses and I like to look at my computer the same way,” says O'Neill. “So my weakness is definitely around spelling, reading and writing and I'm blessed that technology is able to give me a pair of glasses, if you will.”
Murphy, meanwhile, who now holds a cooking class for the Dyspraxia Association of Ireland, overcame her initial difficulties with coordination and handling cutlery through learning musical instruments and martial arts. She insists that a positive outlook and determination can compensate for any perceived shortcoming in business. “I believe with the right mind, attitude and support, dyspraxia can eventually be overcome.”
When advising others on starting a business, O'Neill recommends against worrying about your weaknesses, especially if you have a learning difference, and focusing on the strengths of your business. He advises: “Dyslexic people have a huge amount of positive traits that will really help anyone in business. My advice is to forget about your weaknesses, focus on your strengths and just go for it and trust me when I tell you it's going to be okay. For everything else there's technology.”
The above article was first published in InBUSINESS magazine Q3 2016.