Sane ideas from Tufts psychiatry prof: Linking effective leadership and mental illness

Did depression make him a better President? (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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.

Basic thesis

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.

Thought provoking

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.

11 responses

  1. I have always felt that my breakdown happened because of my ability to empathize. Watching a bully psychologically terrorize four women and being told by the organization’s counsel that unless he physically hurt somone, I could not fire him took its toll. Based on my experience it was my empathy that made me a good leader and it was that same empathy that was my undoing.

    • Trish, yes, empathy can be a two-edged sword — especially in organizations where the culture does not value this quality. Thank you for sharing your experience here.

  2. “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.”

    Amen! Reminds me of a piece I read from an SF Gate writer named Jon Carroll:

    “MY FRIEND LINDA says that there are two kinds of people — new-teapot people and broken-teapot people. She likes the broken-teapot people better, and so do I. I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t lost something.

    New-teapot people think that they can expect to be new teapots for the rest of their lives and that broken-teapot people are careless or stupid or perhaps just unlucky. Some new-teapot people think broken-teapot people have cooties.”

    I’m also leery of trusting new-teapot people. Maybe we should start a club!

    • Lisa, thanks for sharing that commentary. Would you accept “rattling teapot” instead of “broken teapot” as a friendly amendment? Otherwise, it’s a brilliant passage.

  3. Those with lots of characteristics of obsessive compulsive personality disorder make excellent CEOs and critical care nurses. I once worked with a an open heart surgeon who taught everyone the value of having people with brain differences. He would never work on a problem with a group that consisted of only one gender and preferred people with unusual thinking. There are many very brilliant and creative people who have Bipolar Disorder. Society treats those with differences as outsiders rather than valuable assets. Right now in this country we can certainly use some fresh thinking.

  4. Pingback: Sane ideas from Tufts psychiatry prof: Linking effective leadership and mental illness (via Minding the Workplace) | Pilant's Business Ethics Blog

  5. I share the same fascination with this subject, David, and hope there will be more research and awareness around these linkages. Jonathan Wolf Schenk’s book on Lincoln’s lifetime battle w depression is also very good.

  6. This whole discussion just so amazing. I have suffered from workplace bullying within the past couple of years, and have had a “depression” streak all of my life. But no one can dissuade me that I am smart, hard-working, dedicated, creative, empathetic and caring, whatever they say. I may be “crazy” but I am most definitely not stupid. That people have felt free to denigrate and bully me because I’m an easy emotional target is indicative of their insecure and pathetic power trips (You know, I’m really sorry that your mother didn’t love you, or if you yourself were teased because you were fat or ugly or whatever, but don’t take it out on me…and I’m even somewhat sympathetic to that, because I know bullying almost always comes from some sort of deficit in the bully’s psyche and self-perception.) Bullying and good leadership are polar opposites, a fact lost on so many. I love that the academic and scientific community are continuing to validate what I’ve known in my heart all along.

  7. Pingback: Sane ideas from Tufts psychiatry prof: Linking effective leadership and mental illness (via Minding the Workplace) | Pilant's Business Ethics

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