A provocative new book argues there is a correlation between mental illness and successful leadership.
Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi sums up his thesis like this: “Mental illness enhances leadership in crisis situations.”
In “A First-Rate Madness,” he says: “Sanity is rightly seen as healthy, conducive to personal happiness and success in life. But it does not always, or even usually, produce good leadership.”
Ghaemi notes that presidents widely considered successful — such as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy — suffered from mood disorders for most of their lives. In Ghaemi’s view, a leader who has managed a lifetime of mental highs and lows is better equipped to handle trying situations.
In times of crisis, leaders with mood disorders were at an advantage rather than impaired, he writes. They were more resilient, more creative, more thoughtful, more empathetic and better able to endure times of intense stress. Along with presidents, he profiles General William Sherman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi.
Conversely, Ghaemi believes that George W. Bush and Tony Blair were failures as leaders because they were mentally healthy.
“Mentally healthy people are insulated from some of the world’s travails by their positive illusion — they believe that they and the world are actually better than they are. Generally speaking, positive illusion is a good thing,” he says, but cautions powerful people with positive illusions can fall prey to hubris.
According to Ghaemi, these kinds of leaders fall into the hubris syndrome when they have been in power for a long time. Using Bush and Blair as two living examples, he says they exhibited signs of hubris, which include not listening to opposing views, ignoring public opinion, believing God or history is on their side and demeaning dissenters.
“People who suffer from depression also benefit from depressive realism that should protect them from the illusion-enhancing effects of power,” Ghaemi concludes.
He says the way to avoid having leaders who suffer from hubris is to elect those who are “not too mentally healthy.”
So if Ghaemi is correct, along with questioning our 2012 presidential candidates about war and the economy, should we ask: “Do you ever have persistant sad, anxious or empty feelings?”