Madness and Leadership

Illustration by Newsweek; Source photo: AP

By now, the 2012 Republican presidential contenders have all been tattooed by the opposition, branded as boring, damaged, or even insane. The entire GOP is "barking mad," as The New Republic recently put it, and the party's White House hopefuls display what The New Yorker calls "crackles of craziness." This kind of talk flows both ways, of course. But what if the big problem with Washington—the real reason that voters are responding with a mixture of disappointment and panic—isn't nuttiness so much as a lack of it?

That's one takeaway from A First-Rate Madness, a new book of psychiatric case studies by Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center. He argues that what sets apart the world's great leaders isn't some splendidly healthy mind but an exceptionally broken one, coupled with the good luck to lead when extremity is needed. "Our greatest crisis leaders toil in sadness when society is happy," writes Ghaemi. "Yet when calamity occurs, if they are in a position to act, they can lift up the rest of us."

If so, then what we need for these calamitous times is a calamitous mind, a madman in chief, someone whose abnormal brain can solve our abnormal problems. Perhaps the nicotine-free, no-drama Obama won't do after all (although, by phone, Ghaemi acknowledges "a little more abnormality there than is advertised"). The good doctor isn't saying that all mental illness is a blessing. Only that the common diseases of the mind—mania, depression, and related quirks—shouldn't disqualify one from the upper echelons of public life, and for a simple reason: they are remarkably consistent predictors of brilliant success.

Ghaemi isn't the first to claim that madness is a close relative of genius, or even the first to extend the idea into politics. But he does go further than others, finding sickness in business leaders (CNN founder Ted Turner), social activists (Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi), and military commanders (Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman), as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy. His explanations are elegant, too—intuitively accurate and banked off the latest psychiatric research.

Depression in all its forms (which Ghaemi finds in Abraham Lincoln and the mildly bipolar Churchill) brings suffering, which makes one more clear-eyed, fit to recognize the world's problems, and able to face them down like the noonday demon. Mania in all its forms (which Ghaemi detects in FDR and JFK) brings resilience, which helps one learn from failure, often with enough creativity to make a new start. Most originally, Ghaemi coins "the inverse law of sanity": the perils of well-being. It's why the poor, sane Neville Chamberlain chummed around with Nazi leaders while Churchill's "black dog" foresaw a fight.

In Ghaemi's view, even our supposedly crazy leaders were too sane for their times, and the nation suffered. When Richard Nixon faced the Watergate crisis, "he handled it the way an average [normal person] would handle it: he lied, and he dug in, and he fought." Similarly, George W. Bush was "middle of the road in his personality traits," which is why his response to the September 11 attacks was simplistic, unwavering, and, above all, "normal."

So should we bring on the crazy in 2012? At the very least, we should rethink our definitions and stop assuming that normality is always good, and abnormality always bad. If Ghaemi is right, that is far too simplistic and stigmatizing, akin to excluding people by race or religion—only possibly worse because excellence can clearly spring from the unwell, and mediocrity from the healthy. The challenge is getting voters to think this way, too. It won't do to have candidates shaking Prozac bottles from the podium, unless the public is ready to reward them for it. Amid multiple wars and lingering recession, maybe that time is now.