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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness Hardcover – Aug 9 2011

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (Aug. 9 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202958
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202957
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 2.9 x 24.1 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #277,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“A glistening psychological history, faceted largely by the biographies of eight famous leaders… A First-Rate Madness is carefully plotted and sensibly argued.”

“Ghaemi isn’t the first to claim that madness is a close relative of genius, or even the first to extend the idea into politics.  But he does go further than others… His explanations are elegant, too—intuitively accurate and banked off the latest psychiatric research.”

“A provocative thesis… Ghaemi’s book deserves high marks for original thinking.” –THE WASHINGTON POST

“Ghaemi is a remarkably disciplined writer, and he examines both psychiatry and history with impressive clarity and sensitivity. A First-Rate Madness will almost certainly be one of the most fascinating books of the year, not just because of the author's lucid prose and undeniable intelligence, but because of his provocative thesis: "For abnormal challenges, abnormal leaders are needed."” --NPR.ORG

“Provocative, fascinating.” –SALON.COM

About the Author

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles and several books on psychiatry.

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author puts forward the notion that in times of crises few great men are mentally healthy and few mentally healthy men are great leaders. General McLellan did well in peace time and failed during the civil war, while manic-depressive General Sherman failed during peace time and excelled during war. A similar comparison is made between British Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.

An intriguing case is made regarding how a change in medications helped make JFK a better President while increasing drug abuse (methamphetamines) helped make Hitler even more unhinged.

A must read for any student of history or of psychology and anyone looking to challenge the current prejudices regarding mental illness.
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Format: Hardcover
I was expecting this book to tell more about the direct qualities that derive from mental illness, but instead it assumed that we knew them. This is a History book, more so than a psychology book.

This book pretty much says «This guy had mental disorders, and was great, probably because of his illness» and shows many examples. His ideas are very well put trough and trough to posit his ideas and it convinced me.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was worried after starting to read this book I'd need a background in psychology or psychiatry, but the author does a good job of explaining in layman's terms his premises. He is the first to admit his theories are not air tight, but did a good job of convincing me, as well as influencing my view of mental illness.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Really enjoyed it, well researched. For people who feel the stigma of having a mental health issue, this book can be useful in that it demonstrates a hidden "silver lining" to their issue.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x9f979ab0) out of 5 stars 162 reviews
193 of 212 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa2e9a1bc) out of 5 stars Superb and insightful...essential reading. Aug. 8 2011
By David J. Spellman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the best book I have read all year.
First of all, Dr. Ghaemi is a world-class psychiatrist; he is THE expert on issues of mood disorder (my wife is a psychiatrist and says that Dr. Ghaemi is the very best in the nation in his Continuing Medical Education teaching). So, he truly knows what he is writing about.
The structure of the book essentially follows the pattern of a chapter which describes the state-of-the-art in psychiatry as to a given diagnosis, followed by mini-biographies in two chapters of two historical figures who are exemplars of leadership with the particular diagnosis that Dr. Ghaemi has described. The manner in which he uses historical evidence to arrive at his diagnosis is seamless.
Among the historical figures profiled are Lincoln, General Sherman, Hitler, Gandhi, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR and JFK. There is a profile of Ted Turner, unusual because he is the only living example profiled (and the only non-political leader). Toward the end of the book there is extensive commentary about Nixon, Dubya, Tony Blair and some insights about Clinton, Truman, Eisenhower and even Newt Gingrich along the way.
I have read at least one biography of each figure he profiles (except for Ted Turner). I can vouch for the historical accuracy of Dr. Ghaemi's book in all regards except for two minor points about FDR: he was not a member of Woodrow Wilson's cabinet and he was not Secretary of the Navy (he was #2, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy).
The endnotes are also a magnificent treasure-trove of information.
Superb book, well-written by someone who knows his material.
I won't spoil your enjoyment with details about the profiles, but the essential thesis of the book is that we stigmatize mental illness but with the paradox that the very finest leaders in times of crisis or great challenge are mentally ill (sufficiently mentally ill to be great and effective leaders but not too much to have become incapacitated such as the monster Hitler).
Read. Enjoy. Benefit from this book.
62 of 77 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9fc1f2a0) out of 5 stars One Huge Point, Many Smaller Insights Aug. 28 2011
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I am torn between a 4 and a 5 I read all the other reviews. I rate this book a five because it advances appreciation for the integration of psychology with history, and contributes somewhat--not the last word--to the rather vital discussion of why so many of our "leaders" are pedestrian, and what marks those who rise to extraordinary heights in the face of complex near catastrophic challenges.

Those critical of the book for the relatively brevity of the biographic sections, and the occasional mistakes, are in my view missing the huge point that really matters: in a time of extreme complexity and ambiguity, leaders with the most open of minds capable of very unconventional thinking are vital, and it just so happens that what what some call lunatic fringe or borderline personality have "the right stuff" for such times.

I have five pages of notes on this book. Below are some highlights and a few quotes.

The author refers to an inverse law of sanity and early on quotes Sherman as saying "In these times it is hard to say who are sane and who are insane." That is precisely how I feel as I watch Wall Street, Big Oil, the Military-Industrial Complex, and a two-party tyranny with a lame President pretending they have not already driven the Republic over the cliff.

The author's core argument is that in times of crisis, mentally ill leaders do better. While he exaggerates for effect, his essential argument is that "the establishment" produces sterile "well-adjusted" leaders who are best at following convention and staying within their "lanes in the road."

He cites four positive outcomes for leadership by the mentally-divergent as I prefer to label it:

+ Realism (the "normal" over-estimate stability, future prospects, and ease of staying normal)
+ Resilience (constant struggles with adversity harden the mentally-divergent more than those born to privilege)
+ Empathy (deep pain in self can arouse deep empathy for others including the unconscious who know not what they do)
+ Creativity (not just unconventional solutions, but finding problems others have not even noticed)

QUOTE (11): This theory argues that depressed people aren't depressed because they distort reality; they're depressed because t hey see reality more clearly than other people do.

QUOTE (13): A key aspect of mania is the liberation of one's thought processes...the emancipation of the intellect makes normal thinking seem pedestrian.

This is a good point to bring in Peter Drucker's quote, "Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission."

QUOTE (15): The core of mania is impulsivity with heightened energy.

Abnormal personalities have three core traits in this book: neuroticism, extroversion, and openness to experience.

QUOTE (17): Citing German Psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer, the first to connect insanity and genius, "Insanity is not a 'regrettable accident' but the 'indispensable catalyst' of genius."

I am reminded of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That seems to sum up those who persist in doing the wrong things righter, throwing more money at everything from agriculture to water works without once stopping to do holistic analytics.

Although the biographies are shallow and focused on making the author's case, I find interesting nuggets in all of them, and consider the most negative reviews of this book to be missing the point. It offers a break-out idea and calls into question the competence of our leaders. For a long free online look at what I am thinking, look up "Integrity at Scale" by Stephen Howard Johnson.

Mania facilitates integrative complexity. Persistence matters--demands independence of character.

QUOTE (32): Sherman on Grant "He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk."

Ted Turner's short bio is used to point out that CNN had integrity when he led it, and lost it when he left. This is also where the author observes that normal people severely over-estimate the degree of control and stability in their endeavors.

FDR on Churchill: He has a hundred ideas a day, four of which are good.

Churchill did not fit the times when both parties in England agreed that appeasement was the "bipartisan" course.

QUOTE (65): Churchill was relegated to the wilderness by Baldwin and others because his unconventional personna (partly reflecting his mood illness) provided an excuse to ignore his sadly realistic political judgment.

I am not a politician, but having been labeled "lunatic fringe" when I started the public Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) fight in 1992 with my article in Whole Earth Review, "E3i: Ethics, Ecology, Evolution, and Intelligence: An Alternative Paradigm for National Security," I can certainly see the insanity of my being on the sidelines while the Director of National Intelligence blows $80 billion a year on not much of anything worthwhile and fails to provide useful policy, acquisition, and operations decision-support for 96% of the Whole of Government.

Lincoln was a manic-depressive and deeply realistic and empathetic. Here I find my own mistake to chide the author on, he simply does not have the deep background needed. His representation of the Emancipation Proclamation is flat out wrong. Lincoln did NOT free the slaves in the North and South, and he only freed the slaves in the unoccupied south with reluctance and because of military necessity.

Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King attempted teen-age suicide. I learn that the black movement in the USA sought Gandhi out, and that he inspired them in their regard for non-violent resistance. I also learn that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King placed non-violent resistance above violent resistance, and (this is the part I did not know), violent resistance above passive acceptance.

Today in the USA 80% of the public is passively accepting a totally ignorant and corrupt federal government as well as the dominance of the 20% of the public that is flat-out ignorant, idiotic, and downright dangerous--the wing-nuts are on the march.

QUOTE (109): The real Martin Luther King was an "aggressive confrontational realist."

Resilience is spawned by mental illness.

FDR specifically appreciated the "lunatic fringe," observing that so many things that were "lunatic fringe" in his boyhood had become standard by the time of his presidency.

I learn that FDR refused to create a deficit burden on future Administrations despite the pressure to do so when he introduced Social Security. That is integrity. We lack that today in the federal government as well as state governments.

The chapter on John F. Kennedy for me is a stunning collage of the deep suffering over a young life that I had never understood.

The chapter on Hitler that upsets some people (the same people that missed Churchill's praise of Hitler's skill, energy, and focus) is fascinating.

QUOTE (207): Comparing the degeneration of Hitler in later years and the contrasting excellence of JFK, the author says "In leadership, and in life, drugs can make a major difference."

The entire section on Bush, Blair, Nixon, and others is boring for me, I know all this and have little regard for most of our so-called leaders, many of them fronts for the special interests that consider them nothing more than glorified pawns.

QUOTE (211): "Sanity...does not always, or even usually, produce good leadership."

Homoclites are "those who follow a common rule." I annotate: stay in their lanes and do not challenge convention.

The author's chapter on Nixon is interesting, but he does not realize that Nixon was the victim of a coup by the Bush Gang. While I mention this, I do not believe such limitations detract from the total value of the book.

QUOTE (233): A key characteristic of a homoclite leader is that he or she is effective and successful in peacetime or prosperity, but fails during war or crisis."

While I agree with that, I observe that the author does not provide for corruption and treason such as we have seen for too long at the highest levels of the US Government (political, political appointees, and compliant flag officers forgetting their Oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America).

I am reminded of Bob Gates as well as Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft and have the annotation: civility has replaced integrity as the core "value" for senior support staff.

The author makes it clear that Obama is a homoclite. I put the book down after a day's reflections on and off well-satisfied with the book in every respect including price. Our leaders today STINK. They are good people trapped in a bad system and not only do they not know how to retire rich while still serving the public interest, they look askance at those of us who do know the answer to the riddle of public service, of how to achieve public intelligence and public integrity in the public interest.

The author himself recommends:

The Psychology of Politics

I recommend, within my limit of nine remaining links:

Transforming Leadership
Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World
Wave Rider: Leadership for High Performance in a Self-Organizing World
Radical Man
On the Psychology of Military Incompetence
Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women's Thinking to Psychological Theory and Education
The Leadership of Civilization Building: Administrative and civilization theory, Symbolic Dialogue, and Citizen Skills for the 21st Century
Critical Choices. The United Nations, Networks, and the Future of Global Governance
No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger Security International)
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9fc1f24c) out of 5 stars Fascinating premise-flawed interpretation Aug. 22 2012
By fitzalling - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
First, let me say that Dr. Ghaemi deserves high praise for his premise, which is highly creative and deserving of respectful consideration. The effort he put into securing and analyzing the mental health records of the the leaders whom he studies is impressive. Next, let me say that Dr. Ghaemi carefully sought to be even-handed and even fair in his review of political figures. In ne instance, he comments on some admirable actions of Richard Nixon, which,in my experience, is unheard of. The book is worth reading.

However, my score reflects my belief that the connection between leadership and mental illness is unproven by Dr. Ghaemi's own examples. He uses Sherman's march through the South in the Civil War as an example of General Sherman's superior leadership caused by his mental illness. One may argue that the success attributed to Sherman might be better attributed to a better armed and trained army with the winds of victory at its back led by superior, and not so mentally ill, subordinate officers.

In my opinion, Abraham Lincoln stands as the equal of George Washington of the history of American presidents. Lincoln, by many accounts, struggled with depression and difficult personal relationships many times in his life. Did this increase his capacity for empathy and resilience? Possibly. Did this empathy with others affect his approach to the war? I am doubtful. In the dark days of the war, did resilience that he may have developed in the dark days of his personal life support him mentally? Perhaps.

As a approach to fighting the war, Lincoln's sought a general who "would fight," which General McClellan essentially failed to do and for which Lincoln fired him. But what Lincoln meant by "fight" was a general who would take casualties. Lincoln realized that the North had about twice as many men of military age as the South had. Thus, the North could trade casualties one for one with the South and still have men to fight when the South no longer did. When President Lincoln found General Grant he found a general who take "would fight" and take large casualties. The willingness to take casualties ultimately vindicated Lincoln. I am skeptical that it displayed empathy. It was the soldiers who were willing to fight and die led by aggressive Northern officers, whose contributions should not be overlooked.

Dr. Ghaemi ascribes empathy as well to President Franklin Roosevelt arising from depression with roots in adult-onset polio. Dr. Ghaemi makes a careful case for the effect of this illness on his mental state, which undoubtedly must have deeply affected President Roosevelt. However, while Roosevelt's efforts to bolster the nation during the Great Depression are unquestioned, most economic historians which I have studied fix the commencement of World War II as the event that pulled the nation from the grip of the Depression. I know of no historian who has expressed the opinion that President Roosevelt had anything to do with the initiation of WWII. So, any empathy might have temporarily boosted morale, but did not produce the employment levels that Americans desired.

Also, during WWII I believe that most historians would place many highly capable leaders at the President's side. Once again, historical events created the opportunity for great success, which is not to diminish President Roosevelt's leadership during WWII until his death. He unquestionably was liked by many who came into his presence, but I do not think that the case has been made that his native personal charisma was enhanced by any personal demons.

As a contrast, let me consider Dwight Eisenhower, who is mentioned n the book, but not analyzed. Eisenhower was probably a homoclite (think of this as a psychiatrist's technical term for a normal guy whatever that means). Therefore, Eisenhower probably was not tested, and perhaps tortured, by mental illness. However, Eisenhower is generally regarded as an exemplary leader. Perhaps he might be considered a little bland because he didn't have obvious mental issues, but a great leader nonetheless. I will focus on General Eisenhower's leadership leading up to the invasion of Europe in 1944. By all accounts, the planning and decisions leading up to June 6 were deeply stressful and mentally taxing. Yet Eisenhower performed admirably. Once again, the Allied forces that invaded were well trained, well armed, and well supplied. Perhaps more importantly, they, too, felt that they had wind of victory at their back. Many of Eisenhower's subordinate commanders were highly capable and in some cases more charismatic. For Eisenhower as for others, greatness came from performing at a high level on a very large stage.

As I consider the matter, I believe that much of my criticism flows from the limits of the "great man" theory of history. Great men, with or without mental illness, may have greatness ascribed to them because of the acts of highly capable subordinates and large masses of motivated homoclites, who in many instances are called to suffer.
79 of 105 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9fc1fd14) out of 5 stars Attention-getting, well worth reading, but not entirely convincing Aug. 17 2011
By M. S. Driver - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title will certainly attract readers. This doctor's main thesis really should be at least considered as a pretty good explanation of the actions and behaviors (or lack of same) of some of our leaders, especially under duress. However, we probably should not find ourselves electing only "mentally ill" candidates just so that there will be highly creative and resilient people in the saddle in case a crisis occurs.

From the title alone, the reader may immediately infer that this book is all about the genius of schizophrenic presidents. That's not what the author wants to tell us. Dr. Ghaemi seems to have only one way to define "mental illness": "manic-depression" (or "bipolar disorder", as it's called today). He doesn't really come out at the start and state that it's only bipolar disorder that he will be discussing with regard to certain leaders. But schizophrenia and paranoia do not seem to fit into his analysis. He even states that neurosis is a normal part of the human personality, which came as a surprise to me.

I was ultimately satisfied by Dr. Ghaemi's arguments on the behaviors of the so-called "mentally ill" leaders he singles out as examples. The chapters on JFK and on Hitler and his Nazi entourage are real eye-openers.

But I was shocked by the doctor's arguments regarding Nixon, and by his dismissal of the extensive media and historical commentary, as well as the observations of millions of contemporary TV viewers, about this president's clearly visible mental state. He didn't sell me on this one.

As to the leaders whom Dr. Ghaemi does not select for his category of "mentally ill" -- among them Tony Blair, Truman and Eisenhower -- I agree with his assessment of the first man, but absolutely not the second or third. The doctor may know his psychiatry, but he certainly does not know his history! He makes the enormous gaffe of saying that, because WW II was "almost over when Truman took office", he didn't have to face a crisis. No, doctor, in April 1945 the war with Japan was nowhere near over, especially if it were to have been fought conventionally. The crisis facing Truman was as bad as any faced by the vaunted FDR in the entire course of the war. In case the good doctor needs to be informed of this fact: Truman, not his predecessor, was the one who had to make the courageous decision to drop two A-bombs in order to save the lives of thousands of American fighting men still in the Pacific, and he had the resilience to stand by that decision in the face of enormous criticism by his own country and its Allies. And Eisenhower, as a general, brilliantly executed D-Day, which was no less a crisis than the Japan decision later on (a point that the doctor overlooks entirely). Truman, Eisenhower and Sherman had all demonstrated resilience and creativity under pressure, but the doctor is saying that only Sherman was best suited to a crisis situation by being "ill" compared to either Ike or Truman, who were merely "healthy". Go figure.

This book necessarily uses jargon and word coinages that I had to keep thumbing back to, but the book is generally easily intelligible to a lay reader who is interested in psychology. It may be more trying for the casual reader. The author seems to be pitching to his colleagues as well as the general public. As to his theories, you probably could refute or defend them with equal vigor depending on what era you live in and how much biography and history you have read.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9fc1fbac) out of 5 stars interesting, but selectively referenced. Sept. 19 2011
By doglove - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author presents an interesting thesis: great crisis leaders and "mental illness" in the form of various degrees of depression, mania or both are linked. Unfortunately, he has selectively chosen a limited number of leaders with problems to justify his point and ignored "normal" leaders who could also be considered great, for example Harry Truman. The author makes no reference to earlier works by physicians who are considered experts in this field, especially Jerrold Post or the British author Hugh L'Etang.
I read this book hoping to gain some new insights into leadership, especially at the national level. Unfortunately, I think it told me more about the author and his selective biases.