Mental illness may be a blessing for successful leaders

Gandhi, Lincoln and Churchill were effective because of their illness.


Photo: Natalie Castellino

A careless reader might miss it altogether, or choose to gloss over it, as its author surely does. But it’s there, in Mahatma Gandhi’s 1948 autobiography: the admission that as a young man, he tried to kill himself.

Distraught over India’s subjugation by the British Empire, Gandhi and a friend secured poison and went to a temple to do the deed. At the last minute, though, their determination failed them, and each swallowed only a non-lethal dose.

In his book, Gandhi downplays the incident, dismissing it as the product of a childish impulse. However, Nassir Ghaemi disputes that excuse, pointing out that only about 2% of children try to kill themselves, and 90% of those who do, suffer from a psychiatric disorder—most often clinical depression. This early incident in Gandhi’s life was followed by a later series of long depressive periods and bouts of severe anxiety, leading Ghaemi to propose a provocative diagnosis: “Mahatma Gandhi was depressed. He also pioneered the politics of non-violent resistance. I believe these two facts are related.”

In A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness (Penguin), the Tufts academic psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School lecturer, offers a collection of case studies of revered political and business leaders from the past century and a half. Their accomplishments, writings and speeches could together form a decent syllabus for a course in leadership and crisis management. And, according to Ghaemi, the common thread between them all—Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, J.F.K. and others—was some form of mental affliction.

Lest we think he’s overdiagnosing, he carefully clarifies: “I see mental health in most of our leaders,” including the likes of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. And sometimes that’s the problem with them: “I see [mental health] as a potential impediment in times of crisis.”

The reason, in Ghaemi’s estimation, is that for every challenge a mental illness poses, there’s a corresponding strength it breeds in those suffering from it.

Depression, for example, often engenders realism in its sufferers—contrast Neville Chamberlain’s appraisal of the threat facing Europe in the 1930s with that of Winston Churchill, who struggled with depression his whole life. The depressed also tend to demonstrate a greater degree of empathy—think, for example, of Dr. King. The leaders Ghaemi examines display exceptional reserves of traits like resilience and creativity that are essential in times of crisis. And while you find those traits in the general population, too, Ghaemi argues that “mental illnesses enhance or promote those qualities more frequently than is the case in the absence of those mental illnesses.”

To be clear, he is not suggesting that Gandhi and his ilk were psychotic; their disorders were of mood, not of fractured thought. And their afflictions weren’t constant. Those with manic depression, for example, are just as susceptible to mania or depression—they’re not constantly in the clouds or in the pits. And there’s no suggestion that only the mentally abnormal can be great leaders. “In times of peace,” Ghaemi concedes, “mental health is useful.” But extraordinary times call for extraordinary abilities, and those abilities are more common in this segment of the population. He goes so far as to state that a mentally normal person elected as the president of the United States—a job where crisis is almost constant—will generally turn out to be a failure.

Of course, Ghaemi had no first-hand access to any of the leaders in question. Relying on contemporary sources, he digs into his subjects’ symptoms, evaluates their family histories (the more severe mental illnesses tend to be genetically linked), considers the patterns that their potential illnesses took and evaluates how they responded to contemporary treatment, if any. Even he seems surprised by the number of world historical figures in whom he can plainly see some kind of illness. Fine for the political history books, perhaps, but what about the contemporary corporate world? Among Ghaemi’s case studies is the hot-blooded American capitalist Ted Turner. The CNN founder admitted in his autobiography to a diagnosis in the 1980s of biploar depression, though he later saw a second doctor who rejected the opinion. Turner, however, was the son of a moody and erratic father who eventually killed himself. From his youth through adulthood, Turner has suffered from distractibility, agitation and impulsive behaviour, as well as enjoying significant self-confidence and a constant level of high energy that’s limited his need for sleep. In the past, he benefited from taking lithium.

Not only does Ghaemi document the extraordinary resilience Turner showed in holding together his father’s business empire in the wake of his suicide, but the audacity and creativity Turner displayed throughout his career. In CNN’s early days, ABC planned two competing news channels to cripple the upstart network. In just four months, working like a maniac (or perhaps more accurately, a manic), Turner created Headline News, reinforcing CNN, pre-empting ABC’s efforts and leading to the cancellation of the rival’s planned channels.

Author Arthur Koestler once identified two kinds of executives: the commissar, adept at administration; and the yogi, the creative business person who can lead or respond to disruption. The best executives combine both qualities, but they are exceedingly rare creatures. “Most leaders lean more in one direction or the other, mainly based on how they are mentally primed,” writes Ghaemi. The ultimate point here isn’t that a troubled company should sack its well-adjusted CEO and comb the psychiatric wards for a more suitable replacement. Rather, the author wants to both destigmatize mental illness—while making a case for the surprising advantages that can accompany it—and to challenge our understanding of what makes an effective leader. The commissar may be an able caretaker, but when the stakes are high, the riskier choice often yields greater rewards.