FT columnist Gillian Tett discusses findings that psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi reports in his book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness (Penguin Press, 2011).
Ghaemi … evaluates a dozen world leaders, and concludes that many were not mentally “normal”. On the contrary, Ghaemi says, men such as John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill all suffered various types of depression, bipolar syndrome or hyperactive manias.
But instead of being a handicap, these “problems”, when kept under some control, helped them in crises: mania is associated with energy and creativity, and depression instils empathy and more realism. Or, to put it another way, people who are entirely normal – or “homoclitic” to use the psychological jargon – do not make great leaders. “Mental health – sanity – does not ensure good leadership; in fact, it often entails the reverse,” Ghaemi argues, citing Neville Chamberlain, the former British leader, as a man who was too mentally “balanced” to be effective in a crisis, unlike the depressive Churchill.
So where does that leave the current American political debate? Since the mental health records of the candidates are still confidential, Ghaemi himself is wary of saying too much. But if nothing else, these analyses suggest that voters should not be too worried about the fact that a psychologist could spot hints of mild depression in Obama’s biography; nor should they be so thrilled that Romney keeps presenting himself as an extremely balanced and sane man.
Gillian Tett, “When political madness works“, Financial Times, 13 October 2012.
Nassir Ghaemi (born 1966) runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center.
Ghaemi’s conclusions are not original, but, coming from a renowned psychiatrist, they do cause us to rethink old prejudices concerning mental illness. Abraham Lincoln is another example of a politician who was a great leader because of, rather in spite of, a lifelong struggle with mental illness. Lincoln scholar Joshua Wolf Shenk (born 1971), after years of study, reached the following conclusion.
Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.
Joshua Wolf Shenk, “Lincoln’s Great Depression“, The Atlantic, October 2005.
Shenk’s essay is adapted from his award-winning book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005; Mariner paperback, 2006).