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FORTUNE Reports On Dyslexia in Corporate World; Story Tells of Corporate Leaders With Dyslexia--and How They Overcame It.

Business Editors

NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--April 29, 2002

What do Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers and David Boies all have in common? Aside from having made a mark in the business world, they are, in one of the stranger bits of business news, all dyslexic. Other business leaders who suffer from the disorder include Craig McCaw, who pioneered the cellular industry; John Reed, who led Citibank to the top of the banking industry; Donald Winkler, who until recently headed Ford Financial; Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and now head of the College Board; Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko's; and Diane Swonk, chief economist at Bank One. FORTUNE senior writer Betsy Morris examines dyslexia in the corporate world in "Overcoming Dyslexia," in the May 13, 2002 issue of FORTUNE, available on newsstands May 6, and at www.fortune.com as of Monday, April 29.

What exactly is dyslexia? "The Everyman definition calls it a reading disorder in which people jumble letters, confusing dog with god, say, or box with pix," says Morris. "The exact cause is unclear; scientists believe it has to do with the way a brain is wired. Difficulty reading, spelling, and writing are typical symptoms. But dyslexia also comes with one or more other learning problems as well, including trouble with math, auditory processing, organizational skills, and memory. No two dyslexics are alike--each has his own set of weaknesses and strengths."

Many of the corporate leaders with dyslexia that Morris spoke to felt somewhat hopeless as kids--and yet all have been extremely successful in business, and have begun to talk about their dyslexia as a way to help children and parents cope with a condition that is still widly misunderstood. According to Morris, "Dyslexia has nothing to do with IQ; many smart, accomplished people have it, or are thought to have had it, including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein." Furthermore, says Morris, "Dyslexics don't outgrow their problems--reading and writing usually remain hard for life--but with patient teaching and deft tutoring, they do learn to manage."

One way they do that is by finding their own approach to seeing the world and doing business. Bill Dreyer, an inventor and biologist at Caltech, thinks in "3-D Technicolor pictures instead of words." Cisco CEO John Chambers sees things like a chess game "on a multiple-layer dimensional cycle," and is able to play it out in his mind, anticipating potential outcomes far down the road. Similarly, Charles Schwab fast-forwards past the smaller, logical steps of sequential thinkers. Bill Samuels of Maker's Mark can't write, but can "organize old information into a different pattern easily." Attorney David Boies makes an outline of his basic points and commits it to memory. Then, unlike trial lawyers who work from a script, he is free to improvise, which enables him to be more dramatic, more flexible.

By the time Schwab, Chambers and other dyslexics became businessmen, they had picked themselves up so many times that risk taking was second nature. "If, as kids, the dyslexic executives had learned the downside of their disorder inside out," says Morris, "as adults they began to see its upside: a distinctly different way of processing information that gave them an edge in a volatile, fast-moving world." Many, such as Chambers, build a team to shore up their weaknesses. And they learn to soak up information in ways that free them from relying on print.

Despite all the unknowns, there is much interesting research being done on dyslexia, and it is clearly better understood and treated today than it was a generation ago. In an accompanying piece, "How to Help," Morris looks at what schools can do to make learning easier for dyslexic children. In a high-pressure society where straight A's and high test scores count for so much, the disorder still carries a heavy penalty, though the hurdles aren't insurmountable. "Where would we be, after all," concludes Morris, "if the bar had been set so high that none of these guys--not Schwab, not Chambers, not Boies, not Dreyer, not McCaw--could have cleared it?"
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