ADHD in Business: Five Lessons from the Life of Oskar Schindler

Posted on by Kevin.

I have spent over a decade and travelled to Poland and the Czech Republic over a dozen times to research the life of Oskar Schindler. His example of heroism stands out not only because of the magnitude of his deeds, saving 1200 of his Jewish workers from the fires of the Holocaust, but also because he failed at almost every other endeavor he put his hand to. Having combed through hundreds of documents and talked with numerous people who knew the man, several poignant lessons for success pop out.

A Purpose-Driven Life.
Find your sense of purpose and find a way to allow your business to serve your mission. Before the war, Oskar Schindler failed at a chicken farming operation, in several sales jobs, and was even arrested as a spy. He had a pattern of getting excited about a new job or venture, and then would quickly grow tired of it, quitting, or letting the business run itself into the ground. He was one of those individuals who did not function well in a job, but needed a MISSION. Regardless of whether or not you have frequently failed, Oskar’s example shows you that when you find your mission in life–in his case saving lives–focus, intention, and perseverance quickly fall into place. Spend some time reflecting on what you are on this Earth to do. There are mission workshops and even mission coaches. This is also something that can be pursued through your church or temple. When you find the unique way that you feel drawn to make the world a better place, satisfaction and success will likely not be far behind. You do not have to start a non-profit, but your work should in some meaningful ways support and sustain your mission.

Get Support!
Another prominent lesson that stands out from Oskar’s life is the absolute necessity of finding the right support. Oskar Schindler succeeded during World War II because he had powerful business coaches during that period. These men, all Jewish, were some of Krakow, Poland’s most successful businessmen. They coached him on finances, strategic planning, and used their insight into human nature to help him navigate the corrupt Nazi bureaucracy. Before and after the war, he tried to go it alone, and was a legendary failure. We need to open up and find the right people to help us, but so many of us see asking for help as a sign of weakness. My experience in coaching adults has shown me that with a little persistence you’ll find that the world is teeming with people who want to help others succeed, if for no other reason than the deep satisfaction this can provide. Don’t try to go it alone! Get support!

Play to Your Strengths.
Before and after World War II, Oskar had little to no support, but he also had a nagging habit of trying his hand at new ventures that played to neither his strengths nor his experience. When Ben Kingsley, playing Itzhak Stern in the film, Schindler’s List, asks Schindler what he planned to do to help the business succeed, Oskar answers: “I’d make it known the company was in business. I’d see that it had a certain panache. That’s what I’m good at. Not the work, not the work: the presentation.” With that line, we see that Schindler was not good at the details of business. He was a promoter, one who knew how to network, schmooze, and profit from his connections. He used these skills to manipulate, bribe, cajole, and deceive hundreds of Nazi true believers, which allowed him to save lives. Yet, after the war, he tried building a nutria farm to make fur coats, attempted to make a go as a hotelier, and ran a cement company into the ground. He failed miserably in these ventures because none of them aroused his passion, nor made use of his strengths. He would have been brilliant working for the United Nations dealing with refugees, starting an orphanage for displaced children, or anything that helped save and preserve human life. He had the unique opportunity of finding and living his mission, and then, inexplicably, returned to his pre-war pattern of trying his hand at businesses in which he had no inherent interest. Don’t seek out a position or start a business that does not play to your strengths. This would be a recipe for failure, as it was in the life of Oskar Schindler.

Network with the Right People.
Networking is often a function of service, so this point dovetails with finding your mission. While Oskar’s example is extreme, it does shed light on the importance of who you know. In Oskar’s case, he had actually given his life in service to Germany. He agreed in 1938 to spy for the German army. He carried out espionage and information-gathering starting in July of that year. Three weeks into this endeavor, his activities were uncovered by the Czechoslovak government. He was tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death. It was only a few months later when Germany took over part of Czechoslovakia that Oskar’s life was saved. I am not advising you to risk your life, but I am recommending you find ways to serve the community, an act that puts you in contact with the people who can help you on your way. I have seen some individuals join the Masons, the Shriners, or the Rotary Club. Others have made great contacts by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. You will be amazed to find how many highly successful and busy people are the same ones who find time to give back to the community. Find a way to plug in to these circles and find the ones that work for you. I have found time and gain that giving our service away is at the top of the list in making networking breakthroughs. Without his vast network of Nazi contacts, Oskar Schindler would not have succeeded in saving human lives.

Take an Honest Look at Yourself.
Throughout his life, Oskar chalked up his lack of satisfaction and success to a lack of money. “If I just had more money,” he frequently told friends after the war, “all my problems would melt away.” The trouble was that Oskar had a good many underlying psychological issues that sabotaged his success and his relationships with others. Documentation strongly suggests that Oskar Schindler suffered from many of the deficits in executive functioning that are common with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He had poor organizational and planning skills, exhibited impulsive decision making, and struggled to stay focused when an activity or task became boring or routine. He also dealt with a mood issue, vacillating between a somewhat depressed mindset and a manic state. Oskar used alcohol as an unconscious attempt to deal with his discontent and dissatisfaction, and also pursued many, many extramarital affairs. Few things, or people, kept him satisfied for long. Of course, these facts make his wartime deeds even more extraordinary. The issue I come back to over and over again as I have poured through the historical record is that Oskar could have performed even more extraordinary deeds for the human race. His demons and mental health challenges, however, got the best of him. Not only do I maintain he had ADHD, but he also came from an alcoholic home and had a terribly contentious relationship with his father. Had he grown up today, he could have gone into therapy, taken medication for the ADHD and depression, and confronted his past. I am certain that his life points us all to the need to do our own personal growth work, to have the courage to take an honest look at ourselves, and to embark on a daily commitment to deal with our inner liabilities and challenges. Working with my coaching clients, I have seen time and again that not confronting our past and the deep truths about ourselves can easily hijack our chances for success and satisfaction. If you want more out of life, and out of your business, but seem to fall a little short, Oskar Schindler’s life points to taking a hard look at yourself first. Working on oneself is one of the hardest things you will ever do, but it could also be the most rewarding and pay the highest dividends.

For those of you who want to learn more about Oskar Schindler, My book is now available!

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