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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illnessby Nassir Ghaemi
"His thesis might seem counterintuitive to voters who have long sought stability and composure in the officeholders they elect. After all, the country most recently elected as president Barack 'No Drama' Obama, who, Ghaemi writes, 'might be considered the epitome of mental health,' over John McCain, who was criticized by his opponents for his 'volatility.' It's a testament to the author's nuanced and careful prose that his thesis comes across so clearly and convincingly — you might not agree with all of his conclusions, but he presents a cogent, persuasive argument for them." Michael Schaub, NPR (Read the entire NPR review)
Synopses & Reviews
An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history's greatest politicians, generals, and businesspeople.
In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, draws from the careers and personal plights of such notable leaders as Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, and others from the past two centuries to build an argument at once controversial and compelling: the very qualities that mark those with mood disorders — realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity-also make for the best leaders in times of crisis. By combining astute analysis of the historical evidence with the latest psychiatric research, Ghaemi demonstrates how these qualities have produced brilliant leadership under the toughest circumstances.
Take realism, for instance: study after study has shown that those suffering depression are better than "normal" people at assessing current threats and predicting future outcomes. Looking at Lincoln and Churchill among others, Ghaemi shows how depressive realism helped these men tackle challenges both personal and national. Or consider creativity, a quality psychiatrists have studied extensively in relation to bipolar disorder. A First-Rate Madness shows how mania inspired General Sherman and Ted Turner to design and execute their most creative — and successful — strategies.
Ghaemi's thesis is both robust and expansive; he even explains why eminently sane men like Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush made such poor leaders. Though sane people are better shepherds in good times, sanity can be a severe liability in moments of crisis. A lifetime without the cyclical torment of mood disorders, Ghaemi explains, can leave one ill equipped to endure dire straits. He also clarifies which kinds of insanity — like psychosis — make for despotism and ineptitude, sometimes on a grand scale.
Ghaemi's bold, authoritative analysis offers powerful new tools for determining who should lead us. But perhaps most profoundly, he encourages us to rethink our view of mental illness as a purely negative phenomenon. As A First-Rate Madness makes clear, the most common types of insanity can confer vital benefits on individuals and society at large — however high the price for those who endure these illnesses.
"No one who reads this brilliantly insightful book will ever look at history or politics the same way. Ghaemi uses his deep knowledge of medicine and psychiatry to take readers on a fascinating voyage into the minds of great leaders. His conclusions are startling, provocative, disturbing and deeply persuasive." Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah's Men
"With brilliance and courage, Ghaemi explores the relationship of mental illness to creative leadership in times of crisis. He explains with great clarity the myriad meanings of mood disorder and other illnesses and ties this analysis to compassionate historical discussions of many of the most — and least — successful major leaders of the past two hundred years. This is a first-rate book." Michael Fellman, professor emeritus of history at Simon Fraser University and author of Citizen Sherman
"Nassir Ghaemi reinvents psychohistory as a serious form of scientific inquiry. Along the way, he presents a bounty of startling facts about some of history's great heroes and villains. Under his highly informed and skeptical gaze, our burnished icons — Lincoln and Sherman, Churchill and Hitler, Kennedy and Nixon, and others — are in for some serious resculpting." Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and author of Breaking the Spell
An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through the lives of some of the most important political figures in history
In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, offers a myth-shattering exploration of the powerful connections between mood illnesses (depression and bipolar disorder) and leadership. He sets forth a controversial, compelling thesis: the very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis. From the importance of the “depressive realism” and creativity of mentally ill or mentally abnormal figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the lackluster leadership of “mentally normal” men such as Neville Chamberlain, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, A First-Rate Madness overturns many of our most cherished perceptions about greatness and the mind and provides a unique insight for understanding our current political leaders and presidential candidates going into the next election season.
A First-Rate Madness includes profiles of Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ted Turner, among other famous leaders.
Historians have long puzzled over the apparent mental instability of great and terrible leaders alike: Napoleon, Lincoln, Churchill, Hitler, and others. In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, offers a myth-shattering exploration of the powerful connections between mental illness and leadership and sets forth a controversial, compelling thesis: the very qualities that mark those with mood disorders also make for the best leaders in times of crisis. From the importance of Lincoln’s “depressive realism” to the lackluster leadership of exceedingly sane men as Neville Chamberlain, A First-Rate Madness overturns many of our most cherished perceptions about greatness and the mind.
About the Author
Nassir Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He trained in psychiatry at, and also serves on the faculty of, Harvard Medical School, and has degrees in history (BA, George Mason University), philosophy (MA, Tufts), and public health (MPH, Harvard). He has published more than a hundred scientific articles and several books on psychiatry.
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