– Uncovering the links between leadership and mental illness.
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What makes a great leader?
Why do some leaders succeed in times of crisis and others in times of relative peace?
In Nassir Ghaemi’s impeccably researched book he puts forward the idea that leaders who have some form of mental illness, such as depression or bi-polar disorder, make excellent crisis leaders. To back up his claims he focuses on eight leaders from the world of politics, business, and war: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Junior, Mahatma Gandi, Ted Turner, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William tecumseh Sherman, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln.
All of these leaders, according to Ghaemi, meet the clinical definition of mental illness to some degree and it is this mental illness that allows them to empathize with those they lead and come into conflict with in the case of depression, and gives resilience and creativity to those with bi-polar disorder.
In other words, in times of crisis we are better off being lead by mentally ill leaders than mentally healthy ones. There are different kinds of leadership for different contexts.
Ghaemi also gives examples of leaders who do not meet the clinical definition of mental illness and who did not excel in times of crisis: Neville chamberlain, Richard Nixon, George McClellan, and perhaps controversially George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
However, perhaps the most controversial part of Ghaemi’s book is the rational that he gives to both Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command. While not making any excuses for Nazis, Ghaemi does make a compelling case that Hilter suffered from bi-polar disorder that was then exacerbated by the mis-prescribing and abuse of drugs by his doctors. It is this insight that underlines the dangers of not understanding the relationship between leadership and mental illness: “Mental illness can produce great leaders but if the illness is too severe, or treated with the wrong drugs. It produces failure or evil.”
As Ghaemi defines it; “mental illness is the susceptibility of entering manic or depressive states not constantly being in those states. And leaders derive benefits from going into and coming out of those states.
The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal. The worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy. In times of peace mental health is useful. One meets the expectations of ones community and one is rewarded for doing so. In times of war or crisis it is the misfits who fit the bill.”
This hypothesis has dramatic implications for those who lead people, whether it be through politics or employment. At its most basic the concept is that different circumstances require, not just different leadership styles, but different leaders entirely. The leader that builds a company and struggles to build an ongoing concern, may not be the right leader to joy the fruits of their labor. Conversely, the leader who has provided excellent stewardship for years if not decades, may not be he right leader when a crisis envelopes a business.
Ghaemi is perhaps most insightful when analyzing mentally healthy people and the failings that go along with mental health. “The typical non crisis leader is idealistic, a bit too optimistic about the world and himself is insensitive to suffering having not suffered much himself. Often he comes from a privileged background who has not been tested by adversity. He thinks himself better than others and fails to see what he has in common with them. His past has served him well and he seeks to preserve it. He doesn’t acclimate well to novelty.”
A First Rate Madness is an important book for those who seek to understand leadership and what makes good and bad leaders. It is perhaps symptomatic of the stigma attached to mental illness that this book is not more well regarded and its theories more widespread. One cannot read it and not take some serious insights even if rejecting its central premiss.
In short, it is essential leadership reading.