09 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
A controversial new bestseller suggests that, in times of crisis, the world is better served by leaders with psychiatric problems, writes Tony Leon
IN A conversation with a South African political leader about the prospects of a late entrant to the overcrowded room housing our opposition parties, I volunteered this: "Of course, it helps to be delusional to lead an opposition party."
My only partly flippant remark was informed by personal experience. Little did I know that a controversial bestseller by Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Centre in Boston, had been written on the subject of why, in times of crisis, the world is better served, in both politics and business, by leaders with psychiatric problems.
Starved as we have been about the real state of the physical health of Nelson Mandela, I settled down to read about the mental hygiene of leaders further afield. Undoubtedly it will have some resonance here too. Ghaemi’s intriguing work, A First-Rate Madness, provides an original account of leadership under stress. Relying on recorded and speculative accounts of world leaders, from Winston Churchill to US Civil War heroes Abraham Lincoln and William Sherman, through to more modern icons, such as former US presidents JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton and, at the opposite end of the moral universe, Adolf Hitler, Ghaemi posits an interesting conclusion: "The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy." The author does not have delusional behaviour in mind, but rather mood disorders such as manic depression, or bipolar disorder. As few local leaders own up to physical, never mind mental, ailments, it is interesting to read of one of the few global leaders who was untroubled by such candour.
Churchill freely wrote and spoke of his "black dog" of severe depression, which he kept at bay, throughout his life, in part with the copious consumption of alcohol and, from the 1950s at least, with medically prescribed amphetamines.
Ghaemi contrasts the mentally complex Churchill with his sane yet ineffectual predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. He quotes the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr: "In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that (the UK) was finished. In 1940, any political leader might have tried to rally Britain with brave words, although his heart was full of despair. But only a man who had known and faced such despair within himself could carry conviction." While Ghaemi believes most leaders are mentally healthy, he posits that depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic and mania makes them more creative and resilient, hence the thesis that mental normalcy in times of crisis can be an "impediment".
There was some criticism of the book for "shoehorning" the evidence to fit an "overly bold thesis", and for the brazen speculation in cases, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whom he cites as "the book ends of depressive activism". But even one of the critics, Christopher Caldwell, suggests the most disturbing and difficult to debunk aspect of the study is the fact that "the important countries of the West are now in the hands of the most untortured bunch of leaders in living memory": from "no drama Obama", as confidants call the US president, to "sunny side up" David Cameron and uber-normal and ultra-cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Perhaps their policy caution and incremental leadership styles could do with some manic thrust? Or perhaps, in the complexity and gridlock of modern politics, it would make little difference.
Unfortunately, as it is a potentially richer field of inquiry, the world of business features in the book only with the rather singular cable-news pioneer and, in the end, unsuccessful media tycoon, Ted Turner. But since his ex-wife, Jane Fonda, wrote a tell-all book about her frantic and unsettled life with the self-confessed occasional lithium-user, there is some evidence that the "manic creativity" allowed Turner to start a new 24-hour TV news channel in 1980 in the face of the most fearsome odds. No doubt hyperthymic personalities — high energy, elevated libido, workaholism, ambitious risk-taking, etc. — are hell to live with, but they drive successful enterprises. Given the recessionary and miserable times we find ourselves in, where often-timid bean counters bestride corporate giants, perhaps we should require a mental health check along with other elements of boardroom disclosure. Although, if Ghaemi is correct, you will be inclined to favour the more mentally abnormal types to steer a company through difficult seas.
He suggests, for example, that when the economy is strong, corporate types "who makes the trains run on time" are fine, but when the economy is in crisis, you should go for "the crisis leader".
Often the peacetime success — in business or politics — is a failure in times of war. That’s something to think about before you make your next board appointment, or cast your vote in the next election.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA