Monday morning on Air Talk, I spoke with Tufts Medical School psychiatry professor Nassir Graeme about his fascinating new book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. His comparative look at history’s greatest leaders, and their mental health challenges, makes for great reading.
I was concerned that Dr. Ghaemi’s book would downplay the suffering endured by those with mental illness, but he’s clear that such difficulties are part of what makes for creative, empathetic, and flexible leaders.
Ghaemi cites Lincoln and Churchill as two examples of deeply depressed men who benefitted from “depressive realism” and empathy. The professor references FDR and JFK as men of "hyperthymic", or mildly manic, temperaments. Such energy and creativity, Ghaemi argues, can aid leaders facing a crisis.
We had several listeners call in wanting to share their experiences of mental illness. One, who described himself as a highly successful writer, said he would gladly give up his success to be free of his illness. Others wanted the chance to say that there were positives to their mental illness.
I can only imagine how difficult it must be to weigh any additive value of depression or mania against the serious pain it causes. Dr. Ghaemi’s point is that it’s a good thing we’ve had leaders willing to fight that battle while serving the public good.