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Do Some Leaders Have ‘First-Rate Madness’?

In 1841, Abraham Lincoln descended into a deep depression, his second debilitating depressive episode. The future president was 32 years old at the time. He’d have a third in the midst of the Civil War. But in 1841, the effects of Lincoln’s depression were already so marked, a friend noted, “The Doctors say he is within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life.”

President Abraham Lincoln, here in an undated portrait, had a history of mental illness. (AP)

President Abraham Lincoln, here in an undated portrait, had a history of mental illness. (AP)

In the eyes of Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, it is this near-perfect lunacy that made Lincoln a magnificent leader in the crisis of the Civil War.

Ghaemi explained that he specializes in bipolar disorder and treats “a lot of people with mania or depression,” Ghaemi told Radio Boston’s Meghna Chakrabarti. “I noticed that a lot of great leaders appear to have a lot of the same symptoms that my patients have, and historians either didn’t note this or deny this. So I tried to set the record straight.”

In his new book, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness,” Ghaemi makes a provocative claim: “The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.”

The statement has won Ghaemi as many critics as it has admirers.  We take a closer look.

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  • http://twitter.com/HarvardNPLI Harvard NPLI

    While Dr. Ghaemi presents one view of crisis leadership, it is hardly the only one. At the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard we spend a lot of time studying leaders in crisis situations. Many of those who do well exhibit no signs of mental illness.

    His findings raise an interesting issues for those who teach leadership: do we suggest to our students that the best preparation for crisis is to “contract” a mental illness?

    I look forward to reading the book and thank you for the interview.

  • http://www.stevekercher.com Steve Kercher

    Another great study on this is “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

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