A Different Kind of Leader

Turning weakness into strength

There was a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required, but this link may work) last week entitled “Depression in Command.”

Based on the book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, it shows how mental illness actually helps leaders during periods of extreme crisis.

He uses two of my favorite leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, as examples.

Both men suffered from severe depression, and were actually suicidal at times. Both men led successfully during the greatest tests each of their respective countries faced, existential threats.

Depression has proven to be connected to higher degrees of empathy and realism.

Aristotle said, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness” and he appears to have been prescient. Dr. Ghaemi calls it the Inverse Law of Sanity and he believes it applies not just to national leaders, but business leaders.

During times of prosperity, when the past predicts the future, almost anyone with a modicum of intelligence and experience can be an effective leader.

But in times of extreme change, like the one we’re going through now both within our industry and the problems faced by the broader world economy, having a leader who sees opportunities others cannot imagine, perhaps because of a quirky personality, or outright mental illness, can be the difference between survival and extinction. Think of Steve Jobs and his obsessive nature.

Dr. Ghaemi: “Great crisis leaders are not like the rest of us; nor are they like mentally healthy leaders. When traditional approaches begin to fail, however, great crisis leaders see new opportunities.

When the past no longer guides the future, they invent a new future. They are realistic enough to see painful truths, and when calamity occurs, they can lift up the rest of us.

Their weakness is the secret of their strength.

If you, like me, love history, PBS has just run a wonderful 6-part American Experience series on Abraham and Mary Lincoln. That link will take you to the PBS site where you can buy the DVD. Here’s the trailer…


Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.