What can ‘Neurodivergent Leadership’ look like? Scoping, postulating and disseminating an inclusive, transversal creative method (hereafter LOOK!) is the title of a 15-month creative practice-led research project. Get in touch now to support, sponsor, collaborate, provide feedback.


  • Is ‘leadership’ in crisis? The old English origin of the term refers to ‘guidance’. The Covid-19 tragedy and Black Lives Matter protests prove the need for new models that prioritise equity (not equality) and justice in an unequal society (Cuyler 2020). Could neurodiversity and creativity point a way? 15% of the UK population have atypical modes of thinking and being (ACAS 2020). Greta Thunberg and Leonardo Da Vinci have shown how their autism and ADHD (Catani & Mazzarello 2019) have shaped their bold ways to guide others and spark change. Other examples abound in the Neurodiversity In/& Creative Research Network, like 26-year old Ali Wilson who is leading an Arts Council England (ACE) project to make theatres neurodiversity-friendly. With new research in neuroscience and psychology on how risk-taking, divergent thinking and creative giftedness pervade in people with ADHD (Lesch 2018), which are also traits in ‘effective’ leadership (eg Frost 2016), and observations about the overrepresentation of autism in Silicon Valley (Silberman 2001), the elite now tout neurodiversity as the ‘next talent opportunity’ or ‘competitive advantage’ (World Economic Forum/WEF, Harvard 2017). This echoes words by UK Research, Arts and British Councils for creativity and ‘intellectual agility’ and ‘novel’ interdisciplinarity to ‘solve research challenges’. But why are creative, neurodivergent talents and methods absent in these discourses?
  • LOOK!will relate knowledge, practices and lived experience in neurodiversity, leadership and visual arts to outline ‘Neurodivergent Leadership’ (NL) as a creative paradigm. LOOK!alerts us to the value of other brains and people, and of interdisciplinary, decolonised creative research. To disregard ‘atypical thinkers and creative problem-solvers’ (Tan 2020) is an injustice and failure to optimise human potential in a resource-poor world. We ‘must attend to neurodiversity, especially when our work does not explicitly deal with neurodivergency or we risk presuming neurotypicality’ (Egner 2019).LOOK! will impact academic, creative, cultural, neurodivergent and EDI contexts. LOOK! will bridge knowledge between neurodivergent leaders and ‘mainstream’ groups in business, culture and research, to benefit each, ensuring marginalised talents and skills are prioritised, not objectified, in the process.


  • The proposal is ‘highly ambitious’, ‘amongst the most interesting I have ever been asked to review’, displaying a ‘deep commitment from the applicant to develop her own leadership of the emerging field of Neurodivergent Leadership’.
  • It is a ‘timely and hugely important project, demonstrating a very high degree of originality’ and will be a ‘timely focus for investment’ and ‘send a strong signal about this agenda being important to [the research council], and to this area of the creative sector too’.
  • The programme is a ‘brilliant and fascinating blend of activities’ pioneering ‘ground clearing’ work’, given ‘the real lack of work in this area’ and ‘real dearth of academic engagement on issues of neurodivergence in the creative sector (whether at universities or creative industries)’.
  • As a ‘new area to embrace a vast array of diverse politics, practices and crises including anti-colonialism, queer and anti-racist responses that have come to the fore especially during the pandemic’, ‘attention to these intersections provides a rich context but also means the frame itself is profoundly elastic and all-encompassing’.
  • LOOK! will create ‘opportunities for policy and creative practice organisations to reflect on their, and their organisations’ practices’; inventing a ‘multi-faceted definition of leadership (in disciplinary and interdisciplinary terms, and within a framework of EDI’ that is ‘well placed to play a role in developing a fast emerging area of research on neurodiversity and its relationship to leadership and creativity’, ‘embracing different ways of conceiving of leadership in a discourse that is genuinely not limited to one discipline or one creative approach, promising to ‘help transform thinking for her participants’.
  • LOOK! employs creative methods in ways that are intended to be challenging brings with it risks but the applicant demonstrates an awareness of these methods and has employed them previously in her established career within and beyond the academy’.
  • I have a ‘strong track-record in arts-based engagement having worked with a range of creative partners on numerous publicly funded projects in the past’, and am already recognised as ‘one of the few who has written and provided resources on this subject; I’ve used them in my own work and in my teaching, where my research assistants and MSc students have struggled to find any detailed research engagement beyond industry reports’.


  • QUESTIONS: What can ‘neurodivergent leadership’ (NL), as a (co-)creative, inclusive and dynamic praxis for positive structural change, look like? Secondary questions are: What are the common grounds/gaps/opportunities in knowledge, practices and lived experience in leadership, neurodiversity and creative research? How can creative and neurodivergent views and methods – hitherto excluded from dominant discourses in leadership and creativity – disrupt, reveal, extend and add value? Could creative research methods bridge the gap where ‘traditional’ methods have come short? What are NL’s strengths? What requires further research?
  • WHY THIS MATTERS: LOOK! will scope, model and disseminate NL as an inclusive methodology. Cognitive modes that deviate from the ‘norm’ occur in one in every seven of us. Yet, their creative value has largely been under-researched, misunderstood, marginalised and/or objectified in academia. The situated fields of knowledge within which NL positions itself are: *Leadership: #BlackLivesMatter, #WeShallNotBeRemoved and #CovidChaos show that bold, decolonised, anti-ableist models of leadership are overdue. Across anthropology, business management, psychology and other areas, situational (Hersey et al. 1996), creative (Selznick 1984), feminist (Billing 2020; Batliwala 2010) and non-Western (eg Agrawal & Rook 2013) frameworks of leadership are countering models that continue to mythologise and privilege dominant powers. *Neurodivergence: Neuroscientists view autism, dyscalculia and so on, as related spectra of differences in brain physiology and structure. Psychiatrists frame them as neuro-developmental disorders which are to be ‘fixed’. Cognitive psychologists stress differences in thinking, processing and sensory issues. Outside of the psych-sciences, those in sociology and disability studies advocate for autism to be seen through a social constructivist lens (eg Rosqvist et al. 2020), emphasising socio-economic barriers and critiquing deficit and curative modes (Brown & Harris 1978). This is echoed by many neurodiverse movements. While disputes abound (Russell 2020), many posit their differences as a valuable part of the continuum (Kapp et al. 2013). *Creativity: Research shows that features of ADHD like risk-taking, divergent thinking and creative giftedness (Lesch 2018), as well as the ability to problem solve and synthesise concepts (LaFrance 1997) match those identified for ‘effective’ leadership (Frost 2016, Keamy 2016; Aylesworth & Cleary 2020). When autism was credited for Silicon Valley’s success (Silberman 2015) and ADHD was credited for human’s survival (Hartmann 1997), ‘neurodiversity’ and ‘creativity’ went viral, including in cultural and academic sectors (UKRI 2020; AHRC 2019; British Council 2019; Arts Council England 2020). A sanctioned version of ‘neurodiversity’ is now sold as the ‘next talent opportunity’, a ‘method for fostering innovation’ and a ‘competitive advantage’ and ‘’strong business case’ to reap ‘better financial outcomes’, with firms rushing to hire autistics (Sonne 2014; McKinsey & Company 2015; WEF 2016, Harvard Business Review 2017; Patterson 2018; Nesta 2019; Orduña 2019; Nesta 2020). Ruling classes seek to emulate traits of ‘weirdos and misfits’ (Cummings 2020), but why are the misfits/talents and their creative abilities excluded from this conversation?
  • LOOK! is my creative response as a misfit/talent, in collaboration with diverse colleagues who have knowledge and lived experience of leadership, neurodiversity, and creative research.

*Creative research is key. Unlike dominant discourses, NL will anchor ‘creativity’ in creative research by creating drawings, diagrams or maps. I will refer to Chinese Daoist diagrams, which applies spatial thinking to situate the bodymind in relation to the world around them (Lao Tzu and Lau 1963, Kohn 2005, Schipper 1994, Tan 2014). Diagramming is distinct to NL, since neurodivergent people tend to process the world visually and spatially (Orton 1925, Geschwind 1982). Diagrams can ‘heed indigenous and black and neurodiverse and queer forms of knowing’, inciting us to ‘connect to how else we can unknow, unown the language of the order-word as it has been passed down, neurotypical generation after neurotypical generation’ (Manning, 2018). Artistic methods can ‘write sideways into the academy’ and help to ‘move the diagram of power/ knowledge’ (Manning 2018). NL will open up new pathways to spur dialogue and collaborations.

*Beneficiaries include thosein visual arts (art history, theory and practice), cultural and museum studies, and leadership, management and business studies. LOOK! will advance the call for diverse leadership that draws on, embraces, and authentically responds to, diverse lives in times of global crises, while demonstrating the value of creative research and interdisciplinary co-creation.

Above: Diagram that provides an overview of LOOK! (redacted). Kai Syng Tan May 2021.