In recent months, discussions about the boom and bust cycles of our economy going back to the Great Depression have been the focus of many news stories. During boom cycles, too many of us experience periods of inflated feelings of power or delusions of grandeur, characterized by excessive risk taking and out of control spending. During bust cycles, many of us experience periods of indecisiveness, black and white thinking, loss of energy and fatigue, even feelings of worthlessness and suicidal thoughts. These reactions are classic symptoms of bipolar disorder.
Companies can and do prosper during times of economic turmoil. What do GE, Disney, HP, Microsoft, and Apple have in common? They were all startups during steep declines in the U.S. economy. GE started during the panic of 1873, Disney started during the recession of 1923-24, HP began during the Great Depression, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft during the recession of 1975. Even today, while the economy is in the worst down period since the Great Depression, Apple is thriving. All these companies realized that they had an advantage by adopting a different mindset, a different way of seeing the crisis. Instead of succumbing to the situation, they saw it as an opportunity to innovate and grow.
Those of us who have changed our mental condition from bipolar disorder to bipolar IN order have something important to share. We have found strength in what was at one time a debilitating weakness. We have learned how to function in all states, including the extremes of mania and depression. The insights we have and the tools that we use can help our companies to function better in both boom and bust times. We can inspire everyone to move forward instead of being crippled by fear and doubt.
It is times like these that call for a different kind of leader. We need someone who understands bipolar and can inspire us all. We need a bipolar president.
Dr. Nassir Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He serves on the faculty of Harvard University’s Medical School, and has degrees in history, philosophy and public health. His new book comes to the same conclusion.
In A FIRST-RATE MADNESS: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, Dr. Ghaemi argues that the very qualities associated with mood disorders have produced brilliant leadership under the toughest circumstances. He focuses on those leading during very turbulent periods and he identifies four key elements essential to crisis leadership: realism, empathy, creativity, and resilience. All, he posits, can be directly enhanced by mental illness: empathy and realism by depression, creativity by mania, and resilience by both.
Dr. Ghaemi looks at the careers and personal plights of figures like Sherman, Lincoln, Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr,. What Ghaemi uncovers is that our great heroes were neither “normal” nor were they special in the sense of being better, or more perfect, than the rest of us. They often suffered from mental illness, but these afflictions actually proved beneficial by boosting the very traits they needed to excel as leaders during hard times. In the case of Lincoln and Winston Churchill, depressive realism and empathy helped these men tackle both personal and tremendous national challenges. For General Sherman and Ted Turner, mania proved a catalyst for the design and execution of some of their most creative and successful strategies. Depression built resilience in King and Gandhi.
Expanding on his thesis, Dr. Ghaemi also explains why exceedingly sane men like General George McClellan and Neville Chamberlain failed to rise to the challenges of their times. Though many considered these men were excellent peacetime leaders, during crises – when empathy, creativity, realism and resilience are called for – their mental health proved a severe liability. A lifetime without the cyclical troubles of mood disorders, Ghaemi explains, can leave one ill equipped to endure dire straits. He also clarifies which kinds of insanity – like psychosis – make for despotism and ineptitude, sometimes on a grand scale.
Similar to my own work with Bipolar Advantage, Dr. Ghaemi encourages us to rethink our view of mental illness as a purely negative phenomenon. Those of us who have done the work to change our bipolar condition from disorder to IN order can be tremendous assets to society instead of burdens. We may also hold the key for turning this mess around. As Dr. Ghaemi concludes, “We should not be seeking leaders who are like us – our leaders should be different from the norm and posses the qualities that come naturally to those persons with mental illnesses.”