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The Asperger’s CEO

Bram Cohen - Eric Millette for BusinessWeek I have to confess that I was not familiar with Asperger’s Syndrome prior to reading the profile of BitTorrent co-founder, chief scientist and recently former ceo, Bram Cohen, in the October 27, 2008 issue of BusinessWeek. (BitTorrent’s Bram Cohen Isn’t Limited by Asperger’s – title of the print magazine article is “Do I Look Like A CEO?” which was a quote from Cohen in the story.)

It’s a fascinating article about leadership and diversity in the workplace.

For Cohen, this has been a fraught journey into the sometimes bewildering world of the office. The social conventions that ease everyday interactions can still elude him. He doesn’t like to shake hands or wear shoes or make small talk. He often plays with a Rubik’s Cube. Sometimes when he is outraged, or more often when he is fatigued, he bursts forth with unwelcome candor. He can be oblivious, lecturing on solar cells or economic theory or euphemisms until someone stops him.

The challenges for both organizational leader and employees would appear to be pretty significant as demonstrated by a posting in Cohen’s blog after the ceo search was completed.

I’m very happy with my new CEO, although the executive search firm we used did some things which I personally find quite humiliating, so I’d like to let people know a few things.
Just because you were approached about being BitTorrent’s CEO doesn’t necessarily mean that I’d ever heard of you. If I had ever heard of you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I thought you had the necessary experience for being BitTorrent’s CEO. Even if I did think you had the necessary experience, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have gotten fuming mad at your name being suggested for any of a number of other reasons, including in some cases widely known lack of competence and lack of morals.
Normally I’d keep quiet about this for the time being, but at least one person is talking about how he was contacted by the executive search firm, and I happen to have completely blown my stack after I heard that he’d been approached, so I wanted to set the record straight.
The executive search firm’s name? Heidrick & Struggles.

Here’s some of what I learned after reading the article:

Asperger syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder.  It is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one of a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by a greater or lesser degree of impairment in language and communication skills, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior.

The most distinguishing symptom of AS is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.  Children with AS want to know everything about their topic of interest and their conversations with others will be about little else.  Their expertise, high level of vocabulary, and formal speech patterns make them seem like little professors.  Other characteristics of AS include repetitive routines or rituals; peculiarities in speech and language; socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior and the inability to interact successfully with peers; problems with non-verbal communication; and clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements.

Children with AS are isolated because of their poor social skills and narrow interests.  They may approach other people, but make normal conversation impossible by inappropriate or eccentric behavior, or by wanting only to talk about their singular interest.    Children with AS usually have a history of developmental delays in motor skills such as pedaling a bike, catching a ball, or climbing outdoor play equipment.   They are often awkward and poorly coordinated with a walk that can appear either stilted or bouncy.

The article on the BusinessWeek website has a lot of thoughtful, and a few thoughtless, comments about living and working with Asperger Syndrome.

Bram Cohen’s blog

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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