Syracuse University Magazine

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Johan Wiklund

Maximizing Potential

To help explain his research, Professor Johan Wiklund offers up a classic scenario from a 25-year high school reunion, where somebody pulls up in a $250,000 car and everyone else gathers round to see who climbs out. Who is this apparently ultra-prosperous former classmate? Is it the person who got straight A’s and earned tons of academic awards and scholarships? Not typically, he says. Rather, it is likely to be the one who sat at the back of the room and constantly created problems for the teacher. And quite often that person achieved his or her wealth by being a successful entrepreneur. “I’m very interested in the link between mental health and entrepreneurship,” says Wiklund, the inaugural Al Berg Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management, whose work includes interviewing entrepreneurs who have an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis. “There seems to be some support for the notion that people who might have problems in other walks of life and don’t really fit the model of what makes people successful in general can potentially do well in entrepreneurship.”

Wiklund has found that certain characteristics common to a person with an ADHD diagnosis, including sensation seeking, risk tolerance, and impulsiveness, can be real assets for entrepreneurs. These individuals, he says, often gravitate to business ownership, which allows them to set their own parameters, establish schedules in keeping with their internal clocks, and pursue tasks and activities that suit their skills and passions. “I just conducted a survey among people who are highly successful entrepreneurs, together with a colleague and a Ph.D. student, looking at the extent to which they have symptoms of ADHD. As expected, we find that those with ADHD symptoms have more mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. But they are also more entrepreneurial, more innovative, and their firms actually perform better, which is pretty sensational in light of how ADHD is typically described,” says Wiklund, whose other research interests include the growth, performance, exit, and failure of entrepreneurial firms.

Wiklund came to Syracuse in 2008 from his native Sweden, where he earned a Ph.D. degree at Jönköping International Business School and also taught at Stockholm School of Economics. His career highlights encompass numerous publications, editorial positions, and international awards, including the prestigious Greif Research Impact Award for “Entrepreneurial Orientation and Business Performance,” a paper he co-wrote with Whitman entrepreneurship professor Tom Lumpkin, and the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Mentor Award for his work with Ph.D. students, which he treasures. “That’s the aspect of academic work I like the most, working with Ph.D. students. You work with them for four or five years, meeting with them on a weekly basis, and help to shape their future lives and careers,” he says. “It’s very gratifying.”

Among his current projects, he is organizing an international workshop focused on entrepreneurship and mental health at SU in October, trying to encourage other scholars to become interested in the topic. “I’m kind of on a mission in that regard,” Wiklund says. He also hopes to develop an entrepreneurship program or institute tailored to the less traditional learning styles of students with ADHD—one that is rich with hands-on activities and features more “doing” than sitting, reading, and test taking. “My ultimate aim is to assist these individuals in reaching their maximum potential through entrepreneurship,” he says.     —Amy Speach

Photo by Steve Sartori