By Daniel Tseghay, Toronto Star, August 20, 2011
Nassir Ghaemi, professor of psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, makes the case that the most effective leaders during crisis are those who have been burdened by some (though not too much) mental illness.
“The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal;” he writes, striking a decidedly counterintuitive note, “the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.”
Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt: all outliers in the conventional vision of mental health, according to Ghaemi, yet all undeniably good leaders because their personal demons had the upside of fostering what the author considers the four crucial elements of leadership: creativity, resilience, realism and empathy.
The research supporting the phenomenon of “depressive realism,” for instance, is extensive. He describes an experiment showing that depressed subjects were better than their contented counterparts at recognizing how little control they had in a game involving random light switching. Other studies have shown that temporarily inducing sadness tends to make subjects more aware of details in their environment. A downbeat mood appears to enhance one’s ability to see things in their precise shape — and perhaps even vice-versa.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Ghaemi compares the depressive Churchill with Neville Chamberlain. “He, as well as many of the other leaders of Britain at the time,” says Ghaemi, “were overly optimistic about the Nazi threat. Realism can make one aware of very unpleasant realities.”
The Tseghay piece in the Toronto Star points to the interim Leader of the Liberal Party, Bob Rae, who has publicly acknowledged some bouts of depression in his life, as a potential "secret weapon" for the party. Certainly the Liberal Party is in dire need of acknowledging its "depressed" state in realistic terms. And the link between having experienced depression and serving during a crisis is notable, if not surprising.
Having faced difficult circumstances and been troubled by situations in one's past can only have one of two results: either the pressure breaks one down, or it builds one stronger...or first one then the other.
It is those whose lives have been uninfected by tragedy, depression, failure, and the deep reflections that accompany most of these experiences, who have no concept of the pain and suffering those without jobs, and those without food and those without homes and those suffering from debilitating sickness, without adequate medical care or hope are going through. And many such people, seeing themselves as "successful, and confident and therefore worthy of public office," are the very ones who put their names up for election. They see themselves as leaders, as change-agents, as both powerful and potentially successful in the political arena.
However, it is in the capacity to integrate tragedy, depression and failure into one's life-view, and to build the strength to face those "facts" squarely that is a much better test of leadership. Everyone, if s/he is honest, has had to face loss, separation, alienation and failure of some kind. However, it is culturally more acceptable to put on a "happy face" to meet the faces that we meet than to wear a face that authentically signals the pain we are experiencing inside. Such a cultural norm, however, is a form of public relations, on the private level. Everyone also needs a place where s/he can share the depths and the anguish of sadness, depression and failure, with another whose trust is sacrosanct.
For a political leader to acknowledge his "depression" is almost unheard of, in fact, there is evidence that others have been forced to withdraw from the political arena for their "weakness".
From Wikipedia website:
Tom Eagleton was George McGovern's choice as his his Vice-presidential running mate (in 1972), but with only a minimal background check. Eagleton made no mention of his earlier hospitalizations, and in fact decided with his wife to keep them secret from McGovern while he was flying to his first meeting with the Presidential nominee.
Eagleton had promised to bring his medical records for McGovern's review, but he did not. He initially concealed the fact that he was on Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic, and when he did disclose his use of the medication he noted that it couldn't be discovered by the press because it was issued under his wife's name.... Ultimately, a portion of Eagleton's medical records was leaked to McGovern, at which point McGovern saw a reference to "manic depression" and "suicidal tendencies."
McGovern had failed to act quickly when he learned of the mental health problems (though not their severe extent) because his own daughter was seriously depressed and he wondered what effect dumping Eagleton because of his depression would have on her. Ultimately, Eagleton threatened that if McGovern tried to force him off the ticket, he would fight the move. Eagleton conditioned his resignation on McGovern's releasing a statement, written by Eagleton, that Eagleton's health was fine and that McGovern had no issues with Eagleton's mental status.
The political culture of the 21st century is no less critical than it was in 1972, especialy in the U.S. In fact, it might be even more judgemental, and even more destructive of character, if medical records were to become public. In Canada, and being interim leader, Rae may not face as serious a threat to his position. (In our view, he should not be even criticized for his public disclosure!)
North America is a long way from accepting "mental illness" as even analogous to "physical illness" and certainly we are, for the most part, loath to endorse one who has even been engaged in psychiatric treatments, not to mention psychotropic medications.
Here is one story, based on empirical research, that could help us to shed our "blinders" and our bigotry and our fears on this issue. We are grateful to Nassir Ghaemi, the pychiatrist from Tufts Medical Center, for his work on this book, and can only hope that his work, and that of his colleagues, can and does lead to an enhanced enlightenment of the gifts of some of the more "repressed" and denied and undercover "demons" of human existence.
Our public life, not to mention our private lives, can only benefit from such release.