Is There a Link Between Mental Illness & Leadership: A Book Review (Guest Post)
Posted Sep 06 2011 5:01pm
The following guest post is from blogger and reader James Claims , who writes a compelling synopsis/review of Dr. Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness:
Can mental illness be a recipe for leadership? Contrary to common perceptions, Nassir Ghaemi contends that in times of crisis, falling along the spectrum of manic depression might provide just the qualities that are needed to survive the turmoil. In a historical analysis, Ghaemi identifies in multiple leaders, from Sherman and Lincoln, to Ghandi and Roosevelt, four characteristics that arise from manic depression: Creativity, Realism, Empathy, and Resilience.
Creativity is identified not with finding solutions to problems, but with finding new problems to solve. It’s the out of the box thinking that Ghaemi contends is indicative of manias found in people along the bipolar spectrum. It also does not occur as often in hyperthymic individuals, but only with hypomanias and manias. He contends that it is an asset that leads to innovations no one would have thought of, and it is this inventiveness that makes for a leader in times of crisis who will provide the unique solutions that are necessary.
The first creative leader identified with full symptoms of bipolar disorder is General Sherman of the American Civil War. Sherman is the man credited for revolutionizing warfare from the Napoleonic style of en masse warfare to total warfare, where civilian infrastructure is targeted. It set the stage for warfare that would rule the 20th century and is credited for its extensive role in ending the American Civil War. Sherman displayed everything from failure due to mania in his previous life before taking over as General in the war where he failed to hold down any sort of job and constantly moved; while also appearing to have severe depression, even psychosis. He constantly paced, had intense energy levels, and also had his depressions that threatened his life and terrified his closest friends. But through the mania, he became creative and saw a new form of warfare that could end the war. It was risky, he cut off his supply chain, marched toward Atlanta with no back up. He was considered mad for taking such a risk, but it is this riskiness that led him to carry out a plan that defined a new breed of warfare.
Realism is the next quality. Realism is the quality of knowing how much control one has over one’s environment. And it is a quality honed by depression and backed up by science. In a 1979 study, Ellen Langer and Jane Roth found that “mentally healthy” individuals overestimated their control of a situation, while depressive individuals were able to detect the difference between luck and success.
Individuals with this quality are leaders like Churchill and Lincoln, both with periods of hypomania and depression. Churchill was able to see through the bluffs of Hitler despite the marginalization that occurred from his gruff exterior. Lincoln was able to find compromise up until it was no longer possible and then take the needed and bold steps to accomplish the unification of the states. Ghaemi contends that their realistic assessment of situations stemmed from their depressive symptoms. Both had them, and both proved to fall into the realistic assessments that Langer and Roth identified.
Third is Empathy. Again, Ghaemi provides a neurobiological assessment of how depression leads to being more empathetic with other individuals. Individuals who experienced severe depression had more oxytocin receptors, leading to hardwired empathy. It is not something gained from reading a book, it is learned through tragedy and depression.
The great leaders who experienced depression on a large scale were MLK and Ghandi. Both practiced a radical form of empathy that led to their practice of nonviolence. Ghaemi contends that their ability to empathize with other individuals led them away from violent resistance and toward the peaceable consilience of conflict. Without the hardwired empathy, they might never have reached their conclusions
Fourth is Resilience. What is meant by this is “good outcome in spite of serious threats to adaptation or development.” Resilience is a trait marked by hyperthymic personalities, those who display a higher level of energy marked by its proximity to mania. The added energy caused by falling along this spectrum of bipolarity causes one to remain strong and creative in the face of adversity. A needed quality in times of crisis. It is the philosophy of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and it is hard to permanently wound someone who has manic symptoms.
The great leaders who had bipolar symptoms that marked resiliency were FDR and JFK. Both took charge in times of great strife and learned quickly from their mistakes. JFK was an important case study of a properly medicated individual with bipolar disorder. He learned quickly from his failure at the Bay of Pigs incident to the creative solution during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both withstood great periods of strife and problems, but both over came great physical ailments and presidential failures to continue on when others might have crumbled.
There are other leaders in the book. A quick comparative in terms of proper medication and poor medication is provided as a comparison between JFK and Hitler (who also had bipolar disorder). Toward the end, Ghaemi provides a quick study of crisis leaders who were mentally healthy and failed to live up to the crisis. Instead, the leaders reacted in predictable ways without creativity, empathy, realism, or resilience. The leaders examined were Bush Jr. and Tony Blair.
A final suggestion is provided. One hinted at on the Colbert Report. That we should look for mentally ill leaders in times of crisis. That being too normal might be a hindrance in crisis time despite being a benefit in times of peace.
In the end, Ghaemi provides a fascinating and convincing story concerning the role that bipolar symptoms might provide in times of crisis leadership. It is uplifting to me to see that what is traditionally seen as a reason against achievement may actually provide the character traits that produce great individuals. Where if one was not afflicted by abnormal moods, one wouldn’t be hardwired to survive. This message combined with case studies of great individuals provides a unique historical narrative that is refreshing in its message as well as thorough in its historical analysis. As a small history buff myself, I hope to find more scientifically based psychological analysis of historical individuals. A First Rate Madness is a pleasure to read, takes about a day’s worth of effort, and provides unique and uplifting messages about the greatest leaders in history.
*If you are interested in writing a guest post for Struggling with the Elephant in the Room, please send an email to manicdepressiveblog [at] yahoo.com