Ghaemi lecture links leadership and mental illness


“Salvation of humanity lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,”academic psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi said at the 12th annual James O’Neil, Jr. Memorial Lecture on Oct. 21.

The lecture was based off of Ghaemi’s book titled “A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness,” and it covered how the traits of mental illness, manic-depressive disorder in specific, connect to the ability of being an effective leader in times of crisis. As mentioned in his book, Ghaemi, along with many other psychiatrists, attribute the strong leadership qualities of some of the world’s most successful leaders to the symptoms of both depression and mania.

“It’s not the case that we only need one kind of leader, there are at least two different kinds of leadership,” Ghaemi said. “In the case of crisis leadership, having manic depressive illness is a benefit.”

As the lecture advanced, he depicted that some of history’s most influential leaders, such as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., former President John F. Kennedy, and Mahatma Gandhi, displayed symptoms of manic-depressive illness. He suggested that these symptoms, when occurring in mild to moderate forms, made major contributions to how these men led populations with such a vast success in their differing eras of crisis.

“There are four traits of leadership that are shown in the scientific literature on mania and depression,” Ghaemi said. “They are, for mania, increased resilience to trauma and increased creativity, and, for depression, increased realism and increased empathy towards others.”

In Ghaemi’s research, people displaying mild symptoms of mania, also called hyperthymia, are more apt to respond to trauma in a positive way, possibly even growing from witnessing the traumatic experience. It also causes its victims to have, among many other traits, a higher level of energy to the point of tirelessness, extreme talkativeness, and high level of charisma. Ghaemi explained that these symptoms are evident in former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
“[Alf Landon] tried to keep up with [Roosevelt] when he was younger, and he ended up in the hospital,” Ghaemi said. “Landon was just completely burned out. He said, ‘I don’t understand this Roosevelt, he never stops.’”

As for the mild symptoms of depression, victims have a lesser sense of positive illusion, which makes them more self-aware. Ghaemi also noted that people with mild depressive symptoms feel a subjective, personal pain, which increases their ability to understand the pain of others, which can be used to explain the empathy behind leaders like King and Gandhi.

More of Ghaemi’s research and findings on the topic of mental illness in correlation to leadership can be found in his New York Times bestseller, “A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness,” available on shelves now.