S. Nassir Ghaemi, in his book, A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the links between  Leadership and Mental Illness, makes a case for the fact that while ‘normal’ leaders are good in times of stability and peace; in times of crisis, mentally ill or mentally abnormal people make for better leaders.

He does this via historical analysis of leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King jr, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln etc. Some of these leaders he classifies as being predominantly depressive, others as manic while the rest as being of bipolar proclivity. In the book he writes:

The depressed person is mired in the past; the manic person is obsessed with the future. Both destroy the present in the process.

He lists four traits that distinguish a manic/depressive leader from other normal leaders: Empathy, ResilienceCreativity and Realism! I can easily map these to the ABCD dimensions: empathy is an Affective trait (the ability to feel emotions), resilience is more about Behaviors (bouncing back from failures), creativity is related to Cognition (ability to think in a divergent manner) while realism can be linked to Desire/Dynamism (do we do realistic assessments).

He claims, and I find that claim very attractive and true, that depressive people typically are better at empathy and realism, that is, they have heightened empathy and realism as compared to the normal population; in a similar vein, manic people are typically better at creativity and resilience than the normal population.

If one views depression and mania  as somewhat opposed to each other. at least on on some dimensions, it goes without saying that depressive people may be less creative (they are typically stuck in ruts)/resilient (they often cant cope and sometime stake the extreme step of suicide); similarly, in a manic phase, people may be less realistic (may even become psychotic losing touch with reality)/ empathetic (may not be able to get inside the head of others).

While a depressive or manic phase may be debilitating, the relatively ‘normal’/symptom free period may confer advantages on depressives, manics or bipolars by making them leverage their resilience, creativity, realism and empathy, especially to tide over crisis.

Why should it be the case that in normal periods a ‘normal’ leader may help, but in a crisis only an ‘abnormal’ leader may be able to rise to the occasion? The answer lies in evolution and genetic diversity. Consider moths that are generally gray in color, but some are darker (closer to black) while some others lighter (white in color) . The majority gray moths are the ‘normal’ moths, while the minority black and white are abnormal ones. Now these moths are exquisitely adapted to their environments, and typically gray moths will flourish. However if the area has suddenly become polluted such that darker color moths are now less easier to detect than the gray moths by the predators, then dark moths will thrive at the cost of  light moths.

A similar analogy can be applied to humans. Normal leaders are adapted to stable conditions; while in times of crisis, more atypical brains may suffer greater advantage.

So next time you select a leader, be mindful of whether its a change/crisis situation or a stable situation; if a crisis/ change situation, you may do well to do some reverse discrimination and select a mentally ill/ abnormal person as a leader!!

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