12 November 2011

A First-Rate Madness - Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi


I saw a brief blurb about A First Rate Madness in an issue of Scientific American a few months back, and I have to say the very idea of it fascinated me.  As someone who’s struggled through depression myself, I was especially interested in what the book had to say about how the experiences of depression can sometimes turn into strengths.  Though it took me a while to realize it at the time, that definitely mirrored my own experiences.
Ghaemi focuses his thesis on the idea that in times of crisis, leaders who suffer or suffered from mental illness have traits that make them more prepared to face the challenges the world is presenting, while leaders without mental illness tend to do well in stable times.  He posits that mental illness - and he focuses on depression and bipolar disorder in particular, as well as the personality subsets that go with them - gives those who suffer from them four advantages in crisis leadership: realism, creativity, empathy, and resilience.
He presents “psychological histories” of several prominent leaders: Churchill, FDR, JFK, William T Sherman, Ted Turner, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to illustrate how their own mental illness gave them tools which became useful in their struggles: Churchill’s depression led to realism about the Nazi threat; FDR’s creativity helped him constantly try new things to solve the problems of the Great Depression; JFK’s resilience, in the face of lifelong illness as well as a daunting first year in office, was a major factor in the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis; Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. both centered their non-violent movements around the very notion of empathy.
Ghaemi is quick to point out the shortcomings of attempting such research, but he nonetheless presents a rubric that seemed, to me at least, reasonable enough: examining the historical figures’ symptoms, family history, course of treatment (where applicable) and...something else which escapes me at the moment.  Nor does he make the case that mentally healthy leaders - which he terms homoclite, as they express the “norm mental state” - are necessarily bad in a crisis.  He simply examines the links that history has provided.
I found the read thoroughly engaging, as I so often find history reads, and I found myself buried in wikipedia for quite a while afterward, wikisurfing from topic to topic on the events covered in the book.

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Books: Read The Call of Cthulhu and currently reading The Colour Out of Space.

Bottles: Drank a bunch of Dashe Late Harvest Zinfandel last night as well as a bottle of Ramey Cabernet 2007 and a bottle of Layer Cake Primitivo 2008.  All very enjoyable.

Writing: Working on chapter 14.  I'm having a hard time getting back into Adam's frame of mind.

Guitar: Nope, guitar is in KC.  But on a related note, I have the Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here Immersion Box Sets waiting for me when I get home!