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

3.66  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,055 Ratings  ·  357 Reviews
An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through the lives of some of the most important political figures in history
In "A First-Rate Madness," Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, offers a myth-shattering exploration of the powerful connections between mood
ebook, 352 pages
Published August 1st 2011 by Penguin Books (first published 2011)
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Oct 20, 2014 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 23, 2011 Nancy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 15, 2016 Fahad rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
جنون من الطراز الرفيع

رغم انتقاداتي إلا أن هذا كتاب من الطراز الرفيع، يتتبع فيه ناصر قائمي سير زعماء غربيين وزعيم شرقي واحد – غاندي -، ليخلص إلى خلاصة مهمة وهي أنه لا يشترط الصحة العقلية في الزعماء، وخاصة في أوقات الأزمات، مقارناً بين تشرشل وتشمبرلين وبين شيرمان وبقية جنرالات الحرب الأهلية، كان الزعماء العاديون يزدهرون أوقات السلم، ولكنهم يفشلون في أوقات الأزمات، فيما يزدهر المصابون بالاضطراب ثنائي القطب (الهوس والاكتئاب)، يفسر قائمي ذلك بصفات معينة يثيرها هذا الاضطراب وتكون فعالة في هذا الموضع،
Feb 27, 2012 Stefanie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 04, 2012 Pat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 14, 2013 Kerry rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 after studying psych here's what I can tell you: Ghaemi is brilliant for those who don't know in-depth psych -
Sep 06, 2011 Marya rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
"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
The Good

A First-Rate Madness has a fascinating premise: that in times of crisis, mentally abnormal leaders are more effective than mentally healthy ones. For various reasons, many of which are included in this book, I actually tend to agree with the author, and even if I didn't, his theory would be intriguing food for thought. Additionally, Ghaemi writes well and is consistently engaging, keeping his work from becoming dry as one reads.

The Bad

I have extreme reservations about the evidence Ghaemi
I'm a little disappointed because I expected to like this book a lot more than I actually did. I was quite intrigued by the book initially - Ghaemi's thesis being that mental illness lends certain qualities to its sufferers which aid them in becoming more resilient, more realistic, creative and empathetic individuals and thus, more excellent leaders in times of crisis.

So far, so good. However, this cannot be generalised to every leader and the reverse idea that mental health corresponds with po
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
Sep 17, 2011 G rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 28, 2012 Erwin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite
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
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
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.
Nov 12, 2011 Steve rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ui-lib
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
Oct 06, 2011 Windelbo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nathan M
Apr 07, 2016 Nathan M rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
During the Civil War, General William T. Sherman lead his "March to the Sea" through Georgia and South Carolina. During this march his troops plundered and looted for anything they could find. When they finally reached South Carolina, Sherman and his troops showed no mercy in their desire to punish South Carolina for being the first state to secede from the union. "The Northern troops entered the city, Sherman was merciless. All citizens were forced from their homes and given one-way rail ticket ...more
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.
Feb 01, 2016 Rob rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ghaemi has an interesting premise: that in times of crisis, mentally abnormal leaders are more effective than mentally healthy ones. Maybe. He cites some good examples, but as others have stated, he “cherry-picks from often limited available information. One suspected incident of depression does not necessarily make a depressive or bipolar adult.” Ghaemi’s a good writer, holding your attention, but this work seems like it’s only glanced the surface of some serious issues. His theories are though ...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
Thomas Edmund
Mar 26, 2014 Thomas Edmund rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
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
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
Feb 06, 2013 Lois rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 14, 2012 Mickey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 09, 2012 Jb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 15, 2012 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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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“The depressed person is mired in the past; the manic person is obsessed with the future. Both destroy the present in the process.” 17 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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