One for “Say What?” Files: Mental illness trait of successful leaders??

Posted August 31, 2011 in Latest News & Insights

“The right leader in a crisis may not be the stable one.”  So rang the headline from Harvey Schachter’s book review of A First-Rate Madness by Tufts University psychiatry professor Nassir Ghaemi.  According to Ghaemi’s research, leaders who were mentally unbalanced seemed to do better in times of crisis.  People like Ghandi, Churchill, JFK and Lincoln are all cited as examples. Excuse me, what??  Is it just me, or are we over inundated with increasingly ludicrous books about leadership?

According to Ghaemi, leaders who are calm and steady (like “no drama” Obama) aren’t great at leading in a crisis, whereas leaders who may suffer from bipolar disorder, depression or other issues may be able to tap into empathy, creativity and resilience needed to steer people through tough times.

So, what’s next?  Are we going to see hiring managers seeking the next turn-around CEO asking people to complete mental-health assessments?

“I’m sorry sir / ma’am, but you’re just too mentally stable to lead us through this time of crisis.  We’re really looking for someone who’s been suffering from a bought of depression to drive us out of this mess.”

After reading Schachter’s synopsis and a couple of online book reviews, I was left
thinking that if you took the advice of every person (qualified or not) who wrote a business book seriously, you wouldn’t be  able to lead your way out of a wet paper bag.  Over the past 10 years, I’ve read books that say:

  • leadership is like war and you should massacre those around you (figuratively speaking)
  • people who gossip at the water cooler should be immediately fired
  • everyone is a leader
  • nobody should be a leader
  • people who lead need to empower their followers
  • people who lead need to micromanage their followers
  • leaders need to align people around strengths
  • strengths-based management is a myth and leaders need to deal with managing mediocrity

And now, we have one that says that, in a crisis, you might want somebody who’s a little unbalanced leading you.  (Yeah, but then what do you do with them when you’re out of the crisis).

What I’ve seen is that real leadership starts from the inside and works its way out.  The best leaders that I know have balanced IQ and EQ and have a passion for getting better at leadership.  The other thing I know to be true is that
leadership is absolutely situational. Certain leaders perform better in certain circumstances.  As leaders, we all need to be aware of where we can do our best work and then work there.  The other thing I know for sure is there are a lot of books on leadership out there and somebody, somewhere is making lots of money.

Happy leading!


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