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Power Crazy

March 13, 2012

George Vaillant in The American Scholar:

Realism. Resilience. Empathy. Creativity. As Nassir Ghaemi argues in A First-Rate Madness, these are not only the traits of effective leaders in times of crisis, they are qualities often exhibited by people suffering from psychological disorders like mania and major depression. Is it any wonder, then, that many of history’s most revered (and most infamous) leaders were mentally unstable? According to Ghaemi, the overlap is more than mere coincidence.

Ghaemi, a psychiatry professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the mood disorders program at Tufts Medical Center, gives us a series of carefully researched capsule biographies—of Abraham Lincoln, William T. Sherman, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and, yes, Adolf Hitler, among others—to suggest that leaders often inhabit a kind of looking-glass world in which the inmates are the only sane ones in the asylum. Commendably, Ghaemi diminishes the stigma of mental illness. But with regard to his thesis that, at critical moments, people suffering from mood disorders make better leaders, the devil is in the details.

In support of his assertion, Ghaemi rightfully rejects Freudian psychoanalysis as too theoretical an approach and employs the techniques of evidence-based medicine, paying particular attention to the biology of his subjects: their genetics, brain function, course of illness, and response to treatment. (More)

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