Books: A First-Rate Madness
September 13, 2011 | Books,Politics,TLC Book Tours
When I first got this book, I thought, oh great. Another book about a bunch of dead guys. And it was, indeed, a book about men. It was about some of the most noted leaders in history — Lincoln, Sherman, Churchill, Gandhi, FDR, JFK, MLK and Ted Turner — and how mental illness either hurt or helped them as leaders. And it’s not what you might think.
He argues that a leader who suffers from, say, depression is the best leader during a time of crisis. With such a mental illness, he says, a leader is more likely to have the qualities of realism, empathy, resilience and creativity — all of which are needed to lead others through a crisis.
He also argues that leaders who are mentally healthy — Bush, Blair, Nixon — do more harm than good during crises.
I was skeptical at first. I figured this might be someone with a singular focus into which he wanted to fit this idea. It actually turned out, though, to be the opposite. He had a much more varied background — a degree in history, another in philosophy and another in public health — which helped him see patterns that others would not. A historian, for example, might fail to see the dimensions of mental illness in a subject’s life. Ghaemi, however, was able to draw from all of these aspects of his background to see a subject more clearly and completely.
He asked an important question after discussing Hitler (whose manic-depression was made worse by how and with what he was medicated), “Why not just exclude the mentally ill from positions of power?”
Because, he answered, “… such a stance would have deprived humanity of Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. But there’s an even more fundamental reason not to restrict leadership roles to the mentally healthy: they make bad leaders in times of crisis — just when we need good leadership most.”
I expected his writing to be dry or somewhat academic, but it wasn’t. He’s engaging and compelling, and the book is a great read. I highly recommend it.