Why we need more mentally ill leaders

New science shows that, when it comes to people in power, sanity is overrated. An expert explains why

Topics: History, Neuroscience,

Why we need more mentally ill leaders

In the decades since the Second World War, Winston Churchill has remained one of the most admired leaders in modern history. He loudly and passionately warned the world about Hitler’s Germany long before the Fuehrer aroused other leaders’ suspicions. He skillfully oversaw a teetering war effort and inspired his country to stand up against seemingly insurmountable odds. He was strong-willed, charismatic and bold. But according to a new book, there’s another reason he became a truly great leader: He was mentally ill.

In his provocative, fascinating new work, “First-Rate Madness,” Nassir Ghaemi, an author and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, argues that many of history’s most famous and admired figures, from Churchill to FDR to Gandhi, showed signs of mental illness — and became better leaders because of it. Ghaemi bases his argument on historical records and some of the latest experimental studies on depression and mania, arguing that mild symptoms can actually enhance qualities like creativity or empathy. Gen. William Sherman’s bold march through the South during the Civil War, for example, was actually spurred by his mania, while Churchill’s and Abraham Lincoln’s depression gave them the strength to make it through their more difficult hours.

Salon spoke to Ghaemi over the phone about Hitler’s bipolar disorder, Churchill’s genius — and what all of us can learn from these troubled leaders.

Your book makes a very provocative argument about mental illness. How would you summarize it?

The essential argument of the book is that our greatest leaders often have mental illnesses, and often many of our worst leaders were mentally healthy. Certain leadership qualities are enhanced by mental illness — realism, creativity, resilience and empathy — and that’s why these leaders were great.

A lot of the figures in the book — Gen. William Sherman, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln — are manic depressive. What is it about manic depression, as opposed to other forms of mental illness, that leads to strong leaders?



There’s extensive psychological research on this. Depression has been shown to enhance realism. In one experimental study, for example, depressed people were more aware of when they realistically controlled a task, whereas people without depression sensed they had more control than they really did. People who have depression also have higher empathy scores. Mania has been widely associated with creativity. Both depression and mania (especially mild manic symptoms) have been shown to enhance resilience to trauma. In studies of people who experienced disaster or war trauma, people with mild manic symptoms seemed to have less post-traumatic stress symptoms.

I think if most people knew that their leaders were making important decisions, like, say, about the debt ceiling, while going through a manic phase, they would be concerned.

It’s important to get out of this all-or-nothing thinking. It’s not that you’re either completely normal or in control or completely manic or out of control. Mental illness can come in many degrees of severity; it can be mild, moderate or really severe. When people are mildly to moderately manic they have what are called racing thoughts, going down different tangents that a person normally wouldn’t, and this often produces creative links that most people would not make. Those lead to judgments that lead to decisions that often end up being correct and helpful and would otherwise not happen. Manic people, especially when their symptoms are mild or moderate, can make much better decisions than mentally healthy people who often make very poor decisions.

In the book you use Gen. William Sherman, and his burning of the South during the Civil War, as an example of someone who was successful largely because of his manic depression. Why?

At that point, the classic strategy for war, from Napoleon onward, had involved large armies of men directly assaulting each other in frontal assaults or flanking moves. That was basically what Lee and Grant did. But Sherman [likely as a result of his mania] decided to fight what’s since been called “total war.” He actually avoided the other army in his march through Georgia and the South and instead burned Atlanta and destroyed farms. That had two effects: the direct destruction of the economic capacity of the South to fight the war and striking terror in the lives of the civilians. That kind of economic and psychological warfare hadn’t been thought of before. Sherman also allowed his communication lines to be cut, which wasn’t part of the traditional military strategy. These were very radical notions that broke the back of the South and were the most influential factor in ending the war.

You could also argue that Sherman’s decision has led the world down a very misguided, tragic path.

You can criticize him for that. Total war had a very negative influence in the 20th century, and 21st century. We’re still living with it. I’m not trying to say that everything these leaders did was great, but I’m saying they had a great impact.

In the book you point out that people who experienced hardship in their early years tend to be both more resilient and more empathetic to the plight of others. Why?

Many people who experience traumas [like terrorism or war] don’t develop PTSD or other illnesses. So the question is, what keeps those people from getting sick? What creates resilience? The psychological research suggests that personality is a major factor. Resilience seems to be associated with mild manic symptoms, but you can’t develop resilience unless you’ve already experienced trauma. Many of these leaders faced adversity in their childhood and adulthood, and that seemed to make them better able to handle crises. It’s like a vaccine. You get exposed to a little bit of a bacteria then you can handle major infections and I think trauma and resilience and hyperthymic personality seem to follow a similar path.

Given that straight white men are less likely to face adversity than people who aren’t all of those things, isn’t that an argument for electing more minorities to positions of power?

From a purely environmental perspective I think that’s a reasonable conclusion, but plenty of straight white privileged people experience a lot of adversity, from illness, for example, like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio and JFK’s Addison’s disease, and from mental illness, like Winston Churchill’s manic depression.

Speaking of Churchill, in the book you contrast him with Neville Chamberlain, who famously and tragically tried to appease Nazi Germany in the run-up to WWII. What do their reactions to Hitler tell us about the benefits of mental illness?

You couldn’t invent a more stark contrast. I didn’t know this until I did the research , but Chamberlain was a very upright, very stable, very admired person until the Second World War broke out. Churchill, meanwhile, failed continuously in the 1920s and ’30s. Baldwin, who was the prime minister in the 1930s, once said that Churchill had many virtues but the one thing he lacked was good judgment, which in retrospect is just incredible to think about.

Chamberlain shows that mentally healthy people can run cities and countries when times are prosperous and people are doing well. But when Hitler and the Nazis arose, Chamberlain tried to address them like they were a normal problem. He said, “What does Hitler want? Let’s try to give it to him.” But Hitler wasn’t thinking that way. Churchill realized this and I think it’s a reasonable judgment to say Churchill’s depression and abnormality made him more aware of that — while Chamberlain’s supreme sanity made him unable to think any other way about Hitler than he did.

The interesting thing is, Hitler also had a form of mental illness.

I think he had bipolar disorder. In the early to middle phase of his career, his mania and depression actually helped him, but then beginning in 1937 he got amphetamines fed to him intravenously, and he continued to do so for most of the rest of the war. That really destabilized his bipolar disorder and made him have more and more manic-depressive episodes. I think that’s why he became more irrational over time.

But you also point out that many of the other prominent Nazis, like Goering, actually ended up being very sane.

That’s a converse of my thesis — that while mental illness can enhance leadership in crisis, mental health can hinder it. That’s really important, and it hasn’t been discussed. There’s a psychiatrist named Roy Grinker who tried to systematically study what mental health is. He and his team looked at college students who didn’t have any mental illness at all, and one of the things they discovered is that their subjects didn’t have many leadership skills — and were followers. If you combine that with a study of the Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials that showed they were almost all mentally healthy, it suggests something unfortunate: that in the majority of the population, maybe in most of us, there is the potential for becoming a conformist follower — even when we’re leaders.

Does that mean that people who are not mentally ill can’t aspire to the same level of achievement as people who are?

I think one message from this research is that sanity is overrated. We shouldn’t be trying to seek leaders who are cardboard cutouts of what we conceive to be normal and healthy. This research should allow us to have more flexible attitudes toward our own emotions and show us that the stigma against mental illness is very harmful, not just for the mentally ill but also for the mentally healthy. We should appreciate and understand that a little anxiety and a little depression and a few mood swings can actually be useful and helpful. And when they’re severe we should be able to get them treated in a matter-of-fact way, instead of stigmatizing them.

In the book you argue that some leaders, including George W. Bush, were actually hurt by their own sanity.

Grinker coined this term, “homoclites,” to describe mentally healthy adults who tend to conform to those around him or her that are like him or her. The beer test for a presidency is classic test for a homoclite leader — someone like everybody else. That kind of leader may make us feel good, and we may want to get along with that person socially, but it may not be the best choice for leadership. Besides Chamberlain, other examples I suggest in the book are George W. Bush and Tony Blair. When one looks at their biographies, there is no evidence of mental illness like depression or mania. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of notable extreme personality traits. They seem generally healthy and mentally healthy and average. But that may have been the problem and that may be why in response to 9/11 crises, they weren’t able to think very creatively and empathically and realistically.

Obama’s persona is that of a very sane, rational person who is good at compromise — which is definitely how he sold himself during the debt ceiling crisis. Do you think Obama’s sanity is hurting his abilities as a leader?

I didn’t discuss Obama and other current leaders in the book, because there are documentation and confidentiality issues, and a lot of speculation would have to happen. That said, Obama has said himself that he thinks he’s very normal. This no-drama-Obama persona is meant to reassure people about his normality, but I think that when you look at his memoir there’s a sense of a much more complex and profound person who may have experienced a great deal of anxiety and maybe some depression growing up, being half-white half-African-American. The [sane] parts of his psychology may hinder his leadership in terms of not being creative, and that may not be as useful in a crisis. But to whatever extent he’s not fully completely average, he’ll have some psychological reservoir to draw on to think more creatively and realistically about the current situation.

A lot of people would argue that this idea of retroactively diagnosing the mental illness of historical figures involves a lot of speculation.

I don’t base diagnoses on symptoms — I’m not saying that because someone is sad they’re depressed. I’m basing it on independent lines of evidence that are used in scientific research on psychiatric diagnoses, like genetics, course of illness, and treatment effects. It’s actually a strength to be looking at historical figures because much of the documentation about the psychological state of leaders comes out decades or centuries after they die. For instant, Churchill’s doctor published his diaries first describing Churchill’s depression a decade after Churchill died. 

Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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