Profiles in Leadership: Mental Illness vs. Normalcy

Tyler Dorholt  Follow

Last week, published an article titled “Why We Need More Mentally Ill Leaders.” The article is mostly composed of an interview with Nassir Ghaemi, whose book, A First-Rate Madness, noticeably spurred Salon’s headline. Ghaemi’s book makes the point that many of history’s most esteemed leaders suffered from some form of mental illness or another. Given the context of the article, it’s easy to understand how delicate a topic this is, as it not only gestures toward investigating the personal aspects of our leaders’ lives, but it also presents the argument that normal is not a very flattering thing to be (especially as a leader). And yes, it’s easy to reply “what normal person has ever been a leader?” Well, if we consider normal to mean that someone is of the common type or even that their choices are agreed upon, then there is a long list of normal leaders in history; how else would they get elected by the majority? (Wait, I know everyone has their answer to this so perhaps just put that in the comments section below.) I will refrain from naming any, but I can think of a few right away.

Perhaps Mercury’s recent trip back into retrograde allowed for this article to spurn interest, but what initially etched my engagement is what could potentially, over time, be a reversal of the terms. By terms, I point at the long-averted approach toward an understanding of mental illness, as if it’s too distant to talk about for most. Everyone knows someone or struggles with what could be defined as a mental illness. So what fascinates me the most about this article is the fact that normal might actually be the trait that’s tougher to unravel, or the thing that’s harder to understand than some mental illnesses. If placed as an antithesis to leaders with a mental illness, normalcy seems not only boring but risky. I mean, this in that we’ve perhaps put a common and incapable person up to make the decisions—they won’t see the gap, they’ll continue making agreeable laps. But if the majority is “normal,” then how often do we in fact allow for those not deemed normal to lead us into important ventures? Sure, Minnesota voted Jesse Ventura into office and there’s a plethora of quirky and under-qualified people in office, but they don’t necessarily have a mental illness. They may be “crazy” and a bit “off,” but this is not a measure of their mental place.

I honestly don’t know where I stand on this topic, but it certainly makes me think about the potential leaders who gained a strong following only to fall victim to their own “instability”—Howard Dean anyone?  I mention Dean because while he was and still is often called “crazy.” I don’t think this term is fitting. Perhaps, though I wouldn’t advocate such prodding, the majority of leaders deemed “crazy” are capable of making the best decisions and from a mentally ill place.

What Ghaemi is after is the idea that those who suffer from mental illnesses also prosper in what is called “enhanced realism.” In other words, a capability that allows someone to foresee the realistic implications of a task rather than assume more control than they do or will have. What is also noted by Ghaemi is the correlation between mania and creativity, which also reveals what he notes to be a stronger resilience to trauma. So, with a bit more internal struggle, it’s perhaps possible that external struggles can be coped with more easily and thus dealt with; and, from a leader’s place these struggles might be best alleviated if that leader is mentally ill. As difficult as it may be to figure any of this out (not to mention painstakingly intrusive) it certainly is a timeless discussion. As a friend told me after reading the article, “A little pseudosciencey, but I generally buy his argument.”  Do you? CJP

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