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Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

by Nassir Ghaemi

Pub Date: Aug. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59420-295-7
Publisher: Penguin Press

Ghaemi (Psychology, Tufts Univ. Medical School; The Rise and Fall of the Biopsychosocial Model, 2009, etc.) insists that failed leaders are mentally healthy. The best crisis leaders, more or less, are crazy.

The author demonstrates his scary thesis by thumbnail psycho-biographies of successful troubled leaders and a few flops who were, apparently, quite normal. Ghaemi’s standard diagnostic indicators include symptoms, genetic history, course of illness and treatment. Available medical history and mostly secondary sources serve as validators of mental illnesses in varying severity. General Sherman and Ted Turner, he finds, were hyper-creators. Churchill and Lincoln were depressive realists. Depressed empathy characterized Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. FDR and JFK, both chronically ill, were resiliently manic. In hard times, good politics are bipartisan and great politicians are bipolar. The depressed see life realistically, and the deranged are creative. Though readers may question whether the truly normal can achieve leadership, George W. Bush, for example, is a normal guy, writes the author in proof of his theory. Among the mentally healthy he places Richard Nixon, who failed in a crisis—one of his own making—because he saw the world clearly. For the most part, Ghaemi writes, Nazis, too, were normal folk. For his hypothesis to be taken seriously, the author was obliged to consider the quintessential psychopathic leader, Adolf Hitler, who was a charismatic leader who became crazy to excess. Ultimately, the author provides an unsatisfying diagnosis of the dictator, and he fails to examine, among others, Stalin, Hussein or bin Laden. A diseased mind, Ghaemi candidly admits, attracts stigma, but he insists that the essence of mental illness promotes crisis leadership.

A diverting, exceedingly provocative argument—sure to attract both skeptical and convinced attention.