Why the best leaders are mentally abnormal

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Nassir Ghaemi, author of, “A First-Rate Madness,” makes an interesting argument: “The best crisis leaders,” he writes, “are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.’’

I recently spoke with Ghaemi, who is also a Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center, about his thesis. During our conversation, he compared British leaders Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill — and Civil War Generals George B. McClellan and William Tecumseh Sherman — noting that the sane leaders do well in times of peace but fail during times of crisis (and that the opposite is often true for leaders who suffer from mental illness).

(Listen to our full conversation here.)

Chamberlain and McClellan, Ghaemi notes, had personality traits that people would consider normal, yet when crisis struck, they failed. Churchill and Sherman, conversely, suffered from depression or mania, yet rose above the pressure to become excellent leaders.

“There are different traits of leadership that are useful in peacetime versus during times of crises,” Ghaemi said. ” And indeed, being mentally ill versus mentally healthy may give you those different traits that make you better in one time versus another.”

We also discussed the role that drug-use played with leaders and their responses to pressuring situations. For example, during his presidency, John F. Kennedy was given steroids to deal with his Addison’s disease. Ghaemi argues that the effects the differing treatments had on the president were quite visible — think Bay of Pigs versus the Cuban missile crisis.

Ultimately, Ghaemi presents a very interesting and compelling case that there is a correlation between mental illness and leadership during times of crisis. If you’d like to learn more, you can listen to our full conversation here.

Matt K. Lewis