A First-Rate Madness:
Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness
By Nasir Ghaemi, M. D.
Review by John E. Wade II
REVIEW Part III
President Franklin Roosevelt was described by a famous judge as having “… a first rate temperament.” Psychologically the author described FDR’s personality as hyperthymic—high in energy, very talkative, outgoing, and extroverted and, in short, extremely good company. During his thirteen years in the presidency, he traveled by rail 399 times, covering 545,000 miles. FDR was the epitome of resilience, partly due to his temperament but also probably the result of his polio, contracted at the age of thirty-nine as he was a rising star politically.
A close aide, Robert Jackson, regarded FDR’s sociability as his strongest asset—“He liked people, almost any people.” The author explains that “… people with a hyperthymic personality tend to score very high on openness to experience, and they are curious, inventive, experimental souls.”
Emerging from his battle with polio that would hamper him physically the rest of his life, FDR became “… completely warmhearted, with humility of spirit and with a deeper philosophy.” FDR’s hyperthymic personality helped him combat the polio which in turn endowed him with a degree of empathy which served the nation, world and him well.
President John F. Kennedy also possessed a hyperthymic personality. He suffered with dismal physical problems from severe abdominal pain, infections, and on and on. He wasn’t diagnosed properly until he was thirty—with Addison’s disease—at that time, 1946, a death sentence. But, five years later, a new steroid pill arrived, which turned out to be the cure for most such patients, including JFK.
The author made a statement about JFK that bears repeating, “Kennedy deserves respect for all the suffering he endured, for his mere survival in the face of long odds—for his remarkable resilience. Most normal people with half his medical problems and a fraction of his wealth would have retired to a quiet, easy life.” “Like his hero Winston Churchill and his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy never gave up.”
And now, an infamous historical figure, Adolf Hitler, who the author believes had a mental illness, most probably bipolar disorder which went untreated in any positive manner, but rather in a very destructive manner from 1936 onward. This is the period Hitler did his most dastardly deeds—aggressive warfare and genocide.
Despite his political assassinations and grasp of power, the author states that Hitler’s “moderate bipolar disorder influenced his political career for the better—fueling his charisma, resilience, and political creativity.” After 1937, “… the harmful effects of daily intravenous amphetamine—to which he was especially susceptible because of his bipolar disorder—worsened his manic and depressive episodes, impairing his leadership skills with catastrophic effects.” As the author explains, “In his final two years, Hitler probably never experienced a day of normal mood.”
I encourage everyone to read this entire book to assess for yourselves the good and bad that can come from mood disorders in leadership and to determine for yourselves the author’s critique of “normal” leader failures in crisis times. The chapter about Hitler contains details that reveal a depth of depravity caused by out-of-date remedies to bipolar disorder coupled with tragic and evil goals.
The author presents a good case for seeking extraordinary leaders for extraordinary times, such as Lincoln, Churchill, FDR and JFK. But all these leaders had mental and/or physical weaknesses that are “weeded out” now. When times are normal a “normal” leader can be good to help the trains run on time. But in the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Equal Rights Movement extraordinary leaders who have overcome huge physical and mental obstacles and possess energy and creativity, realism, empathy and resilience in depth can be the difference between success and failure on a grand scale.