When Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, studied prominent figures of the American Civil War, he discovered that many of the greatest leaders during the war (e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Union general Ulysses Grant) were mentally abnormal or mentally ill, while many less effective leaders (e.g., Union general George McClellan) were, well, quite sane.
This epiphany took him down a path that culminated in his new book: S. Nassir Ghaemi, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness (2011). On Wednesday, Dr. Ghaemi gave a compelling, provocative talk before a packed room at the central branch of the Boston Public Library.
Ghaemi’s analysis of prominent historical leaders led him to conclude that many of those with mental illness “have strengths that make them good crisis leaders,” while many of those without mental illness “have weaknesses that make them bad crisis leaders.”
During his talk, Ghaemi noted links between depression and empathy, mania and creativity, and trauma and resilience. He cited Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Franklin Roosevelt as being among the great 20th century leaders who had psychological abnormalities that contributed to their accomplishments.
Perhaps playing to the Boston crowd, he spent considerable time discussing John F. Kennedy (whose complete medical records he had access to), including correlating effective and ineffective episodes of JFK’s presidency to different psychotropic drug treatment programs.
A personal sidebar
This short blog post cannot do justice to the depth of Ghaemi’s talk. That said, allow me to confess my fascination with this topic. It resonated with me immediately, though it took me until after his talk to realize why.
During the decade I have worked on legal issues relevant to workplace bullying, I have come in close contact with many targets of this form of abuse. As regular readers of this blog are well aware, targets of bullying at work often are high-performing employees, and many suffer from depression and PTSD due to the mistreatment they experienced.
Many of these folks are among the most interesting and talented people I’ve ever met. A good number of them exhibit qualities of character, courage, and resilience that I find admirable.
In part because of this experience, I find myself drawn to good people who have managed to recover from or cope with emotional crises in their lives. There is something genuine and down to earth about them — indeed, it makes eminent sense to me that among them are some excellent leaders — and I am inclined to trust them more than those whose lives have been a walk in the park.
Ghaemi is no dime store psychiatrist. He’s a leading expert on mood disorders, he’s done his historical research, and he brings sensitivity and common sense to bear upon his subject matter. No wonder he already is getting attention for this book. He recently appeared on the “Colbert Report,” and I’m sure more television appearances are in the offing.
Of course, there will be anger and ridicule directed towards the book. I did a quick Google search, and some of the review headlines are characterizing the book in the most simplistic terms, suggesting it claims that crazy people make the best leaders.
Hopefully, however, A First-Rate Madness will spark the intelligent, nuanced discussion it deserves. I just ordered it, and if it’s even close to the entertaining, informative talk Ghaemi gave at the library, it will be a terrific read.