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Allan Powell: Leadership and mental illness

December 29, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Several years ago I had the good fortune to hear a neurologist give a professional paper about his post-mortem study of three historic figures with the goal of finding what relationship (if any) might exist between leadership and a nagging physical disability.

The three persons under scrutiny were Woodrow Wilson, Nikolai Lenin and John F. Kennedy. The doctor concluded that their will to lead made it possible to lead in crisis in spite of their physical handicaps.

It was predictable then, that I would be enthusiastic when Joanie handed me a copy of “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering The Links Between Leadership And Mental Illness.”

Professor Nassir Ghaemi, a specialist in psychiatry, took on the challenge of searching for the connection (if any) between clearly discernable mental illnesses in fifteen subjects (almost all of whom suffered from some form of mental illness) and their capacity to lead in times of crisis. Such notables as Mahatmas Gandhi, Adolph Hitler and Ted Turner were among those chosen for the study. I selected two readily recognizable personalities as examples because they were topics of conversation during my lifetime: Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon.

The fundamental conclusion that eventuated from Ghaemi’s studies came down to this: “When times are good, when peace reigns, and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as our leaders. When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best.” I suspect that such an unexpected thesis will make many sit up straight.

Professor Ghaemi then makes the claim that leaders with mental disturbances such as manic-depression have some combination of four traits that equip them for successful leadership in times of crisis: realism, resilience, empathy and creativity. We must keep an open mind when we rate leaders. We may be prone to overlook flaws in leaders we admire and be quick to judge harshly those leaders we dislike. We also need to be reminded that personal flaws do not give evidence of mental illness.

Winston Churchill’s image is still vivid because he dominated the news as he led Great Briton in a war to survive the ravages of Germany’s air force, submarines and tanks. At the outset, I must confess that I was never aware of Churchill’s darker side and he still emerges as a symbol of strength and optimism. Dr. Ghaemi, however, after intensive study, makes a convincing case that Churchill, “had several periods of depression; he was open about it — calling it his ‘Black Dog.’”

In 1946, he told a friend that he “prays every day for death.” A plentiful supply of hard drinks and prescription drugs served as medication.

One of the four characteristics evident in Churchill’s success as a leader with recurring episodes of depression was “his heightened ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed.” It is amazing that while Churchill saw, early and clearly, the true character of Adolph Hitler and that war was inevitable, many bright people who were psychologically “normal” continued to believe that they could deal rationally with Hitler and avoid war.

What is so admirable about Prime Minister Winston Churchill was his unswerving will as a leader in the face of such overpowering inner turmoil. As Professor Ghaemi states, “Churchill never surrendered to the black dog that gnawed at him from the inside.” One lesson to be learned from this account of a flawed hero is that, even with obvious defects, we can achieve greatness.

Professor Ghaemi makes a clear distinction between presidents such as Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Winston Churchill because, while many considered the two presidents to have engaged in questionable conduct, there were no signs of mental illness. Ghaemi argues that while Richard Nixon could not qualify as an ideal person, he showed no symptoms of mental illness.

Those who followed Nixon’s political career and remember several breaches of moral decency are understandably cautious about any sophisticated psychological white-wash to hide Nixon’s “demons.” However, we must be fair to Professor Ghaemi’s standards and recognize his expertise in the cloudy world of mental disturbances. In the end, he may have uncovered a deep truth about leadership: Leaders with mental illnesses may have an edge in managing the ship of state in times of crises.

For those who aspire to be leaders in any sphere of human activity, this study of more than a dozen historic personalities may provide some insights into the needs and perils of leadership. This book was also a revelation about the power of depression as a determinant of behavior. One marvels at the resilience of those cursed with this affliction. Those who are blessed with a more evenly modulated temperament could display their gratitude by exercising a generous portion of empathy for those not so fortunate.


Allan Powell is professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.   

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