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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness
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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

3.65 of 5 stars 3.65  ·  rating details  ·  1,656 ratings  ·  305 reviews
An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history's greatest politicians, generals, and businesspeople.

In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center, draws from the careers and personal plights of such notable leaders as
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Hardcover, 340 pages
Published August 4th 2011 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2011)
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David
Nassir Ghaemi describes a strong correlation between mental or mood disorders, and leadership. Many of the world's best leaders in times of crisis had mental disorders--not very severe, but sufficiently ill so that they handled challenges with more realistic outlooks than so-called "normal" people. However, they do not do well during normal times. They do not make good managers.

On the other hand, "normal" people--which he calls "homoclites", can be good leaders during normal times. But they oft
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Nancy
Who writes history? Those who control the media and the winners of any conflict. This is a summary of some of history's greatest and worst leaders. It reads much like a dissertation only without statistical data to support the hypothesis but plenty of anecdotal which is soft data. The author asserts that the best leaders in war and other stress, were on the bipolar spectrum. The worst leaders under stress were mentally stable.

Many of the examples used are self-proclaimed sufferers of depression
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Stefanie
This book would have gotten three or four stars had its theme been slightly different. The author posits on p. 17, "The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy." Had the book stuck to the specific cases, that is, something closer to "Here are some amazing leaders who had mental illness, and I would argue that their illnesses helped inform and shape their successful leadership," I could have backed that thesis 100%. I can't h ...more
Pat
This book provides an interesting analysis of world leaders & how their mental health influenced their leadership. The author's analysis of such world figures as Lincoln, General Sherman, Hitler, FDR, Nixon, JFK and many others and how they reacted during crisis and non crisis situations depending on his interpretation of their mental health is fascinating. His conclusion is that leaders with certain types of mental illness (bipolar) handle crisis situations better than non mentally ill (nor ...more
Kerry
The psych student in me was extremely excited to open this delectable treat... and it certainly didn't disappoint as by page 2 I get: "in times of crisis, we are better off being led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones". If you aren't intrigued by that then I think there's an RL Stine or Twilight book out there that might be right up yer alley...

On to the next one...now after studying psych here's what I can tell you: Ghaemi is brilliant for those who don't know in-depth psych -
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Marya
"And, isn't sanity really just a one-trick pony anyway? I mean all you get is one trick, rational thinking, but when you're good and crazy, oooh, oooh, oooh, the sky is the limit." - The Tick

From his eminent philosophical standing, the Tick nicely summarizes pretty much the only point in this work's introduction I could accept. The author's thesis, that mentally ill leaders are preferable in times of crisis while sane leaders are better at steering a straight course during non-crisis times, seem
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G
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi was a fantastic book, one that I wish I could convince every person in America to read, because I feel that too many Americans don’t understand mental illness at all, or they simply refuse to acknowledge the signs of illness in themselves or others due to the stigma surrounding it.

Too many people out there in this world believe that people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are just compl
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Erwin
Excellent book. Profiles Lincoln, General Sherman, Hitler, Gandhi, Churchill. MLK. FDR. JFK and Ted Turner.

Original writing. Interesting parallel between this book and How Great Generals Win, which also extensively profiles General Sherman, among other strategists.

Dr. Ghaemi focuses on "manic-depression" (or bipolar disorder), and compares this to what we call "normal" personalities, IE, people with a "general feeling of well being".

Great leadership benefits from a few qualities that the "mental
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Jennifer
As asocial studies teacher and a mental health professional, this book grabbed me right away. I enjoyed learning about his theory and how some of the characteristics of mental illness can be a benefit to leaders. I also think it does a good job of alleviating some of the stigma associated with mental illness. My respect for leaders was also increased when I learned of their struggles and at the same time how much they led a nation or group of people. That being said, I think it is important to r ...more
Hadrian
The psychology of mental illness is a rough subject, especially when dealing with a deceased individual, even one who is so eminent that you have a lot of data to gather upon. I received an incomplete impression of the psychology of these figures, and recalled examples from my own, alternate readings that may have contradicted these findings.

I admired the study done on Lincoln's melancholy, and found it to be profoundly inspirational. Yet this broader view misses some of the other characteristic
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Michelle Cristiani
Solid investigation of the link between mental illness and able leadership through history. I learned a lot about many historical figures I didn't know battled depression. Ghaemi makes as good a case as one could using only historical evidence. Solid conclusions, even if most of it is just guess work...but I tend to agree with his findings.
Steve
I found this book not only fascinating but a compelling idea. The author contends that the best leaders during times of crisis are those with a mental illness. He suggests this is the case for only certain illnesses which are severe depression, mania, bipolar disorder, and hyperthymia . His idea is that depression makes one a realist and empathetic while mania makes on creative and resilient. He gives numerous examples including General Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, MLK, FDR, JFK ...more
Windelbo
This book was fantastic. It made me think about what it means to be a leader and what it means to be mentally ill. While the author's evidence for the mental illness of many of his historical subjects is not always entirely convincing, that doesn't end up being the point. Instead, the point is to recognize that people who have the ability to be visionaries and leaders in crisis are often the ones who are not happy with the current state of things. Those who are 'normal' and happy have no reason ...more
Alisa
An engaging look at how the range of mental health affects leaders in crisis situations, with a thorough examination if existing records. One of the best books that I have read, where the author admits finding results different from his original hypotheses and weaknesses or gaps in his approach. I particularly liked how he addressed living and contemporary leaders and shed light on the cross-cultural biases against mental illness if any degree. *Rounded up from 4.5 stars.
T. Edmund
If anything else, Ghaemi's general thesis is fascinating in itself: The ideal that mentally healthy leaders, while often successful, make poor decisions during times of crisis. According to Ghaemi leaders with poorer mental health make good leaders during times of crisis and difficulty.

Does he convince? The piece A First-Rate Madness does present some compelling arguments - Winston Churchill in particular provides a clear example of a poor peace-time leader and an iconic wartime prime minister.
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Gale Jake
Insightful in its basic concept, ie: leaders who tend toward manic are good in times of crisis, poor in times of peace and tranquility. Leaders who tend toward depression are good in times of peace and normal times, poor in times of crisis. He makes some good points.

His approach was to focus on the psychological history of leaders versus the actions of the leaders. What impact did the leader's state of mind have on the actions and outcome? Why did they behave as they did?

After a good start, the
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Caitlin
Ghaemi's book is interesting for the hypothesis it proposes: in times of crisis, the better leader may be one with some degree of mental illness/abnormality of personality, rather than a "healthy" leader (who, conversely, may do a fine job during times of general peace, when a leader with mental illness would be unsuccessful). I think I would have to read more on this topic to say whether or not I fall into Ghaemi's camp, but according to him, there is little other literature to be found on the ...more
Cleokatra
I’m not sure what to make of this one. If I had some money, I think I would buy a few copies and pay some people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness to read this book. I’d really like to know what people with first-hand experience think of this. If you have a mental illness, could you, like, go to the library and then get back to me? Maybe?

Anyway, the basic premise of the book is that people with mental illness are better leaders in times of crisis and mentally healthy people are bett
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Kendra
I really wanted to love this book, and I do have to give it a few positive mentions. I did learn some interesting historical facts and I think he had good points in the last chapter on stigma, but with that said on to the negatives. First of all, he makes several inaccurate statements, at one time he says that personality has three aspects when in truth most psychologists and scientists now agree that it has five. Also, on page 197 I believe it was he has a paragraph about how narcissism is not ...more
Cynde Beaton
Without a doubt this book tackles a fascinating topic.I enjoyed learning of the personal struggles of famous historical figures as these facts are rarely mentioned in mainstream history. The author's suggestion that leaders with mental illness serve us better in times of crisis however, is both difficult to prove, and subjective.
We cannot recreate the exact conditions of the Second World War and appoint an alternate British Prime Minister, one deemed to be mentally competent,to see how the out
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Lois
An interesting treatise in psychological history. Intrigued by the premise that mental illness can bring with it some characteristics that enhance leadership, I picked it up and struggled with the last half particularly. The author, a Tufts University psychiatrist and expert in mood disorders looks at General Sherman, Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, and Hitler and does some comparisons with what he calls "homoclites" (normal mental health status and wow, ...more
Mickey
This book advances the theory that our best leaders in crisis situations are often mentally ill and also that their mental illness helps them meet the unique challenges inherent in crisis situations.

I enjoyed that short biographies of the leaders. I thought that Ghaemi did a good job of stating his case for the diagnosis of each. I wish he did not find it necessary to be so explicit in his intent. Sometimes the structure was too exposed and I felt like I was reading high school essays again. I
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Jb
Core argument is that mental illness enhances leadership in crisis situations, but a healthy mind hinders. Author, a Tufts University Medical School psychiatry prof, mines historical works to state that “hyperthymic” leaders such as FDR, JFK, ML King and Churchill when they were on a “high” were right for their times. They performed well under pressure. On the other hand, so-called “normal” personalities such as G.W. Bush, Civil War Gen. George McClellan, and British PM Neville Chamberlain did n ...more
Matt
The book certainly has an interesting thesis - that mental illness (specifically depression and bipolar disorder) can make better leaders due to their heightened sympathies. The historical tidbits (especially JFK's trouble growing up) were really fascinating and reading about previous presidents' doctor's assessments was interesting.

The problem with this book is that it seems too quick to judge a past leader as depressed or bipolar. It didn't delve deep enough into its subjects to truly convince
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Deb
Very interesting. I have a new and very different understanding of the gradations of mental illness, including the possibilities that some parts of mental illness rendered leaders in crisis situations to draw upon personality strengths not possessed by the more "normal" or more "stable" of leaders. I enjoyed the application to Kennedy, Ghandi,Lincoln, Churchill and others. It seems that there is a predictability factor of how manic or how depressive a person can be and have that be a positive ca ...more
Jen
I vacillated between giving this a 3 or a 4. He does a very good job of being clear in his intent and his analysis of the individuals was relatively thorough. But, it read like a really, really long journal article. I felt like he referenced earlier in the book a bit more often than made sense and provided his thesis at several points in the book. Also, he spent too much time on some folks and not enough on others to prove his point completely.

On the plus side, I think what he's doing to do is f
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Annelise
This book is really, really bad. The author is a psychiatrist but is trying to use history to make a point about mental health. He fails to follow basic standards for history. What constitutes "historical evidence" is that if it proves his theory for a figure to be mentally ill, then that person was mentally ill.

I actually agree with the basic premise so I am not even a skeptical reader. The medical parts were interesting but the historical parts - that is, the bulk of the book - were abysmal.
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Avis Black
The author has let his political opinions determine how he makes his psychiatric analysis, which is poor professional judgment. His main idea is that a dose of madness makes a leader better. He does not consider that some leaders are talented despite their illness, not because of it. Nor has he bothered to perform the sort of comprehensive survey that might back up his point. His cherry-picking carefully avoids leaders like Idi Amin, or the Emperor Nero, or Ivan the Terrible, all of whom had Gha ...more
Tom Douglas
The author's premise is shaky at best. The idea that mental illness is prevalent across multiple great leaders doesn't quite hold water. If the lynchpin of the argument is William Tecumseh Sherman, the blanket premise is unsound. While an important figure, and definitely a functional schizophrenic, you'll need someone of higher prominence to make a strong point across the breadth of history.

Sherman's account, along with Kennedy and other politicians, feels too much like the conjecture you'd find
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Dave
Mar 10, 2014 Dave rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: biz
Biggest take away - learn to avoid pitfalls of mentally healthy / homoclite people - hubris, positive illusion, bias against new ideas, exaggerated fears of uncommon risks.

Second take away - learn positives that mentally abnormal / ill can bring to leadership - creativity, realism, empathy resilience.

Of course there are lots of areas to find fault beyond that. The author cherry picks his examples - Sherman, Turner, Churchill, Ghandi, MLK, JFK, FDR. He doesn't go into details about their histor
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“The depressed person is mired in the past; the manic person is obsessed with the future. Both destroy the present in the process.” 12 likes
“King and Gandhi had found a way to use aggressive impulses to resist injustice without hurting others. Where did the aggression go? The answer, as King would later tell Poussaint, was this: into the courage needed to resist without fighting back physically...” 3 likes
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