Tourette Syndrome Makes Me a Better Leader

By: - November 15, 2021

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It’s India, 1989. I am leaning against the hot brick wall of a rural depot, waiting for my train. I have Tourette Syndrome, so of course I am ticcing. Thirty travelers, also waiting, form a semicircle around me, staring in total silence, for 3 hours.

It took years of awkward interactions like that one for me to realize that Tourette was a gift. It has given me leadership skills, like empathy, vulnerability, and humor. Hiring managers take note: applicants with Tourette may seem different or strange or hard to manage. In reality, we might be your best employees, and an organization’s most enlightened leaders. Because of Tourette, not despite it.

Tourette Syndrome was named for French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourettes, one of the first to describe it. Tourette is characterized by motor and vocal tics of varying degrees of complexity and severity, usually starting in childhood. Studies suggest that 1 in every 162 people has Tourette, although only half that number have been formally diagnosed. Many people with Tourette also have conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or experience social anxiety from navigating a world where the unusual is feared, or worse, hated.

Being unusual has taught me empathy. My facial tics are often the first thing that people see. Yet, I want to be seen as a person first, not just someone who tics. So, how can I treat employees in wheelchairs, or with hearing aids, or who fight anxiety, as somehow lesser or inferior? I can’t. I may not understand everyone’s exact situation. But I can understand that they have a situation to deal with, just like I do.

Tourette has also taught me vulnerability. This condition is hard to hide, trust me. You are forced to reveal to others this most personal of details – that you have a strange neurological disorder. Yet, being vulnerable comes with a benefit. When I share this aspect of my life with my employees, they realize that I trust them. And tend to trust me back.

And Tourette has taught me how to find the humor in situations. I was bullied endlessly as a child. Many people with Tourette have similar stories. To deflect the threats, I developed a quick wit. It still works today to defuse tense situations, something leaders must do on a regular basis.

It is true that some people have tics that are so debilitating that they can’t work. Or blurt out words that may be inappropriate in a workplace. Or, more likely, have related conditions that impair their availability to work. But most don’t, and for the relatively few who do, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that they can be just as productive working from their own homes.

Empathy, vulnerability, and humor. Many organizations look long and hard for leaders that have these traits but ignore neurodiverse candidates. On that train platform in Indian 30 years ago, Tourette made me a curiosity. Today, it makes me a better leader. Don’t overlook us.

Jerry Gidner is on the Board of Directors of the Tourette Association of America and is an executive with the United States Federal government.

The TAA has valuable resources on Tourette Syndrome and employment, including tips for Tourette Syndrome in the workplace, what employers should know about their employees with Tourette, and information on the Americans with Disabilities Act. For more information, please visit tourette.org.

About Jerry Gidener

Jerry Gidner a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe, and has served throughout the Department of the Interior in a variety of capacities including Deputy Bureau Director for Indian Services, Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Deputy Chief Learning Officer for the Department, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, Principal Deputy Special Trustee for American Indians, Acting Special Trustee for the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, and Director of Bureau of Trust Funds Administration.

Mr. Gidner Mr. Gidner who has Tourette Syndrome, applies his own unique view of management style to his leadership of BTFA. What he dubs “Servant Leadership” focuses on empowering one’s staff to performance excellence through support, trust, and respect. He firmly believes that treating staff in this manner leads to happier, more productive, and more dedicated employees, and this method is already showing excellent results throughout the organization.

Mr. Gidner holds a law degree and a Master’s degree in Natural Resources Policy and Management from the University of Michigan and an MBA from American University. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Michigan State University.