The Mad Men of History and Their Drive To Lead

By webadmin on 09:45 pm Jul 24, 2012
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Simon Marcus Gower

Is madness a necessary quality of leadership?

Megalomaniacal dictators are generally regarded as mad, but what about democratically elected leaders? Could it be that all leaders are driven by a form of mental illness, and that in some cases, insanity can even make people better leaders?

That is the eyebrow-raising proposition at the heart of Nassir Ghaemi’s book, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.”  

A professor of psychiatry at Tufts University in the United States, Ghaemi is quite direct on the point. He writes that “in at least one vitally important circumstance, insanity produces good results and sanity is a problem.”

That “circumstance” is when leaders are forced to deal with particularly difficult situations. At times of crisis, Ghaemi writes, a little craziness can serve a useful purpose: “Complete sanity can steer us astray,” he writes, “while some insanity brings us to port.”

Statements like these seem intentionally controversial, and this will to shock is further reflected in the author’s choice of case studies — one wonders whether a comparison of Adolf Hitler and John F. Kennedy has any rationale beyond boosting book sales with a little controversy.

The author somewhat flippantly suggests that Hitler, rightly vilified as the causation of the most damaging war in human history, is “an unlikely bedfellow” for beloved US President Kennedy, in that both shared a mild form of mental illness. Bedfellows they may be, in that both were medicated for their respective problems during their terms of leadership, but did they share any other similarities?

Kennedy suffered from a disease known as Addison’s, which meant he lacked an adrenal gland function. He was prescribed various medications, including anabolic steroids, described by one of his medical attendants as having “profound psychochemical influence for the better.”  

Hitler, on the other hand, was served a cocktail of amphetamines, barbiturates and opiates, the combination of which led to his increasingly irrational behavior. Ghaemi’s argument that mental illness is good for leadership, then, must be viewed with some skepticism.

At the core of this book is a review of the traits of good leadership, namely: creativity, empathy, realism and resilience. It is subsequently contended that these traits are to be found in ample supply in people who are either depressed or manic in some way.  In effect, this is illustrated with a historical review of a series of renowned leaders from the past — mostly from the 20th century and all noticeably males.

From the American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman through to the likes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and on to modern-day leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ted Turner, a kind of case history is laid out of leaders who have experienced mental illness.

The connection being made throughout is that illness made them better leaders. The author is convinced of the connection, though it could be argued the presence of both mental illness and leadership in these cases may be pure coincidence, and that one does not necessarily follow on from the other.  

But Ghaemi is convincing in putting forward his hypothesis, and contrasts his case studies with leaders he judges to be mediocre, who did not suffer from any mental disturbances.  

The classic example of Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain is used to somewhat too easily illustrate this point. Ghaemi writes, “What made Churchill see the truth where Chamberlain saw only illusion?” He questions why Chamberlain thought Hitler could be dealt with to avoid war, while Churchill was convinced that he would carry the world to war. Ghaemi’s answer is quite stark: “A key difference was that Chamberlain was mentally healthy, while Churchill clearly was not.”  

It is widely known that Churchill suffered from depression and was practically hyperactive in his approach to work. But again, was it really mental illness that made all the difference between these two British wartime prime ministers?  

The central hypothesis of this book may be questioned again and again, but perhaps that was the author’s intention.  In all, it is a highly readable book, supported by an impressive breadth of knowledge, research and reading, but that at times is not entirely scientific in its approach.  

Despite the doubts, much of what is put forward here resonates. Great leadership does often result from unusual sources. It is not always a question of intellect. It can often be a consequence of character. A degree of craziness, to look at a problem in a new way, is clearly seen here as a potentially good thing.