A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness
by Nassir Ghaemi. Penguin Press, 2011
In 1972 Thomas Eagleton was chosen to run as the democratic vice-presidential nominee under George McGovern in the race against Richard Nixon. But it soon emerged that Eagleton suffered from depression and had received shock treatment for it. A scandal erupted, and Eagleton stepped down, forming a cloud that still hovers over politics today.
Psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi thinks the public is mistaken in wanting leaders who appear sane and mentally healthy. In A First-Rate Madness, he proposes that Eagleton may have actually been the best candidate to deal with a national crisis because of, not in spite of, his depression.
The crux of Ghaemi’s argument is that people who are depressed exhibit what psychologists have dubbed “depressive realism”—an all too accurate view of the world. Since the 1970s, when the concept of depressive realism first surfaced, some studies have suggested that people who are mentally healthy actually have overly optimistic ideas about their place in the world.
Being depressed, on the other hand, can give people keener powers of perception and heightened abilities to assess complex or tumultuous situations. In fact, various studies have shown that being bipolar can make people more creative, resilient and in tune with their environment.
Ghaemi details “case studies” wherein he examines respected political figures—such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy—who lived with depression or mania, or both, and argues that these qualities enhanced their leadership skills. Conversely, he asserts that leaders considered mentally healthy do well during times of peace and prosperity but falter during crises because they lack the practicality or creative thinking skills that leaders with mental disorders often exhibit. Ghaemi offers an anecdote in support of his point: the sane British prime minister Neville Chamberlain thought Adolf Hitler was someone who could be reasoned with, but Churchill saw from the beginning that the strategy would never work.
On the surface, the theory may seem counterintuitive. But Ghaemi provides exhaustive research and makes a compelling case for his point, which is perhaps best summed up by an aphorism from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”