09/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Adult ADHD (ADD): Ghosts in the Machine

Sometimes, you get asked to do something that is so flattering that you forget to object on the grounds that the request is virtually impossible. Thus, when The Huffington Post asked me to find topical ways to blog about business leaders with ADHD (ADD), I leaped at the opportunity. I reasoned that if the eminent Steve Josephson, PhD and I can be writing a book about the teachable techniques of the most successful business leaders with ADHD then a mere blog couldn't be too difficult. But of course I have ADHD myself and am prone to impulsive behavior: I leap before I look.

This month, it's easy to arrive at the erroneous conclusion that having adult ADHD is no big deal. Michael Phelps has it and talks about it, but very little about the most decorated Olympian in modern history is typical. According to his agent, Mr. Phelps will be busy hawking Nike, AT&T, Visa, Powerbar, Omega, Kellogg's and (of course) Speedo; the lifetime purse from endorsements could exceed $100 million. So Phelp's is not going to have to have to worry much about the opinions or expectations of future employers. Which means that he's not only reaping the rewards of all that dedication and training: he's also lucky.

To find business leaders who've owned up to having ADHD, it's easiest to look at people who have already arrived in the winner's circle. Paul Orfalea who founded and built Kinko's - eventually purchased by FedEx for $2.4 billion - talks openly about both his dyslexia and ADHD. He retired in 2000. David Neeleman was open about his ADHD even before launching JetBlue, but had already made many people an awful lot of money. Charles Schwab has also gone on the record, but he's already 70. These men are brave for speaking up, but they have less at stake than people who are less in advanced in their careers.

It's therefore terrific that some younger people do speak out in the hopes of inspiring the others. Just this summer, Glenn Beck and Ty Pennington of Extreme Home Makeover chatted on Glenn's radio show about the fact that they both have ADHD and treat it with Vyvanse. It's true that the pharmaceutical company Shire pays Ty to talk about his medication, but I don't think that's why he does it.

All of these notables - younger or older - have one thing in common other than ADHD: they're professionally untouchable. They're either retired, close to it or irreplaceable. They don't have to waste one single second of their lives worried that someone will withhold promotion or give the project to the 'normal' guy down the hall. And to the best of my knowledge, none of them were particularly open about their ADHD when they were just regular folks. They had to achieve unimpeachable success first.

In the course of researching our book, Steve and I have interviewed a number of other people who are just as successful but worry - rightly or wrongly - that they are replaceable. And so, they choose to stay very, very quiet about their condition. Some of these individuals are the meat and potatoes of what you read about in the business press everyday, but they cannot come forward out of fear that some critical constituency will look beyond the benefits conferred by the ADHD and focus only on the negatives. And these are the senior guys, the almost but not quite untouchable giants of business. Imagine what life must be like for people just a rung or two lower on the ladder.

Collectively, these are the ghosts in the machine that I'm supposed to be writing about in a topical fashion every week. But if even a portion of their accomplishments spring from ADHD, they have to hide the fact. These admirable ghosts are making news all around us, but their ADHD identities must remain hidden. Hopefully, that won't be the case for very much longer.