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A First-Rate Madness

Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

By Nassir Ghaemi
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A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi

A First-Rate Madness (2011) argues that some of the world’s most effective leaders were able to achieve such heights because of their experiences with mental illness. Conversely, the book makes the argument that while mentally healthy leaders may succeed when the world is running smoothly, their mental health actually inhibits their leadership abilities in times of upheaval.

Key idea 1 of 6

Some mental illnesses may improve leadership abilities.

Mental illness is serious. In its most extreme forms, it can be devastating for those who have it and their loved ones. Furthermore, a social taboo still surrounds mental illness. That may explain why some people experiencing mental illness are ashamed and try to hide it.

However, the author believes that some forms of mental illness involve abilities that are otherwise inaccessible to the rest of the population.

Specifically, the author has two mental illnesses in mind: major depressive disorder – commonly called depression – and bipolar disorder. They each foster important character traits.

For instance, let’s consider someone who’s faced depression. Depression is a disorder that affects the mood and leads to feelings of sadness. It can also reduce motivation and interest in the world. However, it often means that someone who experiences it is more empathic than average since he’ll have experience and understanding of sadness.

People who’ve not suffered from depression might be able to conceive of the experience of severe depression, but it’s not the same as having been through it. And if you’ve managed to come through it, then you may have a better grasp of the struggles of the human experience.

Bipolar disorder is somewhat different. People who have it may rapidly oscillate in their moods between mania and depression. It can make them more spontaneous. However, those high levels of energy and heightened moods are balanced with deep lows of depression.

Also – and we’ll return to these in later blinks – this means bipolar-disorder personalities often look at things from non-standard perspectives. They are able to imagine creative solutions to problems that someone who hasn’t experienced bipolar disorder would find hard to conceive.

Both of these disorders also occur in “milder” forms. Dysthymic personality disorder is associated with depressive types, while hyperthymic personality disorder corresponds with bipolar disorder.

People with dysthymic personalities lead their lives in a constant state of mild depression, which may culminate in several depressive episodes over the course of a lifetime. Dysthymic personalities are often empathic and deep thinkers.

Hyperthymic personalities are often bursting with energy and creativity. They are charming and without fear. They are, essentially, in a constant state of mild mania.

Now that we’ve gotten an overview of these disorders, let’s look at some of the most influential leaders of recent decades with dysthymic and hyperthymic personalities.

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