Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Exploring Some Very Fine Lines in Leadership

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illnessby Nassir Ghaemi

First, I have to tell you that the author of this book is a well-credentialed professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Mood Disorders program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

The next thing I have to tell you is that the thesis of this book is that the best leader in a time of crisis may very well be a person who has suffered some sort of mental illness.  On top of that, the very worst leader in a crisis may be one who suffers from normality.

The thesis is built on a re-examination of history with examples including Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Ted Turner as examples of leaders who managed crisis well despite evidence of some mental health issues.

In fairness, not just any mental health issue enhances leadership outcomes.  Schizophrenia, for example, is not helpful.  On the other hand, many leaders suffered from depressions, bipolar disorder, and hyperthymia which is, apparently, a sort of slightly manic temperament.

For examples of more or less normal leaders who were fairly successful until they were called upon to manage a crisis, his examples include Nixon, Bush (the second), and Tony Blair.

Ghaemi also provides a lengthy examination of Hitler and considers how he fits the thesis.  Initially, Hitler may have had a bit of the right kind of madness, but it was tragically mishandled by a doctor injecting him daily with early versions of methamphetamines. 

While Hitler's madness ballooned past any kind of madness that could be useful, the more chilling disclosure is that most of his closest subordinates fell firmly into the normal group.  Madness in any form, it appears, is not required of followers.

This is a fascinating book full of interpretation of little known historical facts.  For all of that, it seems to be well researched and it is certainly well presented.  More importantly, it challenges our understanding of both normality and mental illness and the biases we all hold for and against each.

As I read this book, I was inundated with the struggle of the Republican party to identify a viable candidate for the next election and I am none too happy with the outcome.  As we move into the party conventions, we seem to be more clearly at a crisis point.  Unfortunately, the madness of the Conservative Right is a much less than first-rate and Obama, like Carter before him, may be just entirely too "normal."  I am more anxious every day.