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

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience, Culture, Research, History, Leadership
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Nassir Ghaemi

5.0 out of 5 stars One Huge Point, Many Smaller Insights,August 28, 2011

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)

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