Thursday, August 11, 2011

Leadership and Mental Illness

This doesn't sound like a very good book, but it argues for a position I have long pondered: in the most difficult circumstances, we rely on the insane to lead us. The men and women who come to the fore in times of revolution or total war are at the least very weird, and quite often psychotic. Mao, one of my favorites, was paranoid and sometimes had a weak grasp of the world outside his own brain, but he won China's civil war and remade the country. I think the extraordinary calm that many great men have exhibited in battle or political crisis -- George Washington, Abraham Lincoln -- is pathological as much as noble, in that these men were just not capable of getting upset in the normal way. In the book that inspired these thoughts today, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi argues that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King owed their famous passivity to depression, and he offers a psychiatric diagnosis of Winston Churchill's truculence.

As Weston La Barre argued in a really excellent book, the founders of new religions may all have been psychotic.

I don't want to get carried away with the details of diagnosis. Cross-cultural psychiatry is something I don't believe in very much, and all leaders act in particular circumstances, surrounded by other people against whom they may be reacting. I really think, though, that there is something to this. People who accomplish unusual things are often unusual in more than one way. The great movers of history, like Alexander the Great and Napoleon, were obvious narcissistic megalomaniacs. Great religious leaders have extended conversations with God or angels; Martin Luther, who comes across in many ways as a stolid German of very practical bent, spent hundreds of hours debating with the devil. Heroism is, more or less by definition, weird behavior, and people who exhibit remarkable heroism in one circumstance but seem very ordinary in others are just not that common.

One way to define sanity is by a good fit between our psychic selves and the world around us; sane people are the ones who function best in normal circumstances. When the world goes crazy, the normal feel adrift and want some one else to tell them how to act or feel, and the ones who can are often the ones who could barely function in normal times.

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