A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness

3.8 36
by Nassir Ghaemi

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An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history's greatest politicians, generals, and businesspeople.

In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center, draws from the careers and personal plights

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An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history's greatest politicians, generals, and businesspeople.

In A First-Rate Madness, Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center, draws from the careers and personal plights of such notable leaders as Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, and others from the past two centuries to build an argument at once controversial and compelling: the very qualities that mark those with mood disorders- realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity-also make for the best leaders in times of crisis. By combining astute analysis of the historical evidence with the latest psychiatric research, Ghaemi demonstrates how these qualities have produced brilliant leadership under the toughest circumstances.

Take realism, for instance: study after study has shown that those suffering depression are better than "normal" people at assessing current threats and predicting future outcomes. Looking at Lincoln and Churchill among others, Ghaemi shows how depressive realism helped these men tackle challenges both personal and national. Or consider creativity, a quality psychiatrists have studied extensively in relation to bipolar disorder. A First-Rate Madness shows how mania inspired General Sherman and Ted Turner to design and execute their most creative-and successful-strategies.

Ghaemi's thesis is both robust and expansive; he even explains why eminently sane men like Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush made such poor leaders. Though sane people are better shepherds in good times, sanity can be a severe liability in moments of crisis. A lifetime without the cyclical torment 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.

Ghaemi's bold, authoritative analysis offers powerful new tools for determining who should lead us. But perhaps most profoundly, he encourages us to rethink our view of mental illness as a purely negative phenomenon. As A First-Rate Madness makes clear, the most common types of insanity can confer vital benefits on individuals and society at large-however high the price for those who endure these illnesses.

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Editorial Reviews

"When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy." Dave Barry's twisted words of wisdom reverberate in this bracing new examination of the surprising links between mental illness and successful leadership. Tufts professor of psychiatry Nassir Ghaemi delves into the mood disorders of revered leaders including Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy, to name only the most luminary. A First-Rate Madness also explores why relatively normal people such as George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter make unsuccessful presidents.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Stephen Kinzer
No one who reads this brilliantly insightful book will ever look at history or politics the same way. Ghaemi uses his deep knowledge of medicine and psychiatry to take readers on a fascinating voyage into the minds of great leaders. His conclusions are startling, provocative, disturbing and deeply persuasive. (Stephen Kinzer, author of Reset, Overthrow and All the Shah's Men)
Michael Fellman
With brilliance and courage, Ghaemi explores the relationship of mental illness to creative leadership in times of crisis. He explains with great clarity the myriad meanings of mood disorder and other illnesses, and ties this analysis to compassionate historical discussions of many of the most—and least—successful major leaders of the past two hundred years. This is a first-rate book. (Michael Fellman, Professor Emeritus of History at Simon Fraser University; author of Citizen Sherman and In the Name of God and Country)
Paul Johnson
Nassir Ghamei's book is a provocative examination of the link between leadership, depression and mania. It will arouse enormous interest, together with anger and disagreement, and many people will want to read it. (Paul Johnson, author of Churchill, A History of the American People, and Modern Times)
Joshua Wolf Shenk
Considered together, and with such rigor and clarity as they are here, these stories are staggering. If so many leaders have suffered so hard, we may well ask: What is 'mental health' anyway? Certainly, we need to reconsider sentimental notions of greatness and heroism. With deft use of biographical and psychiatric detail, Ghaemi exposes a central current of human experience that badly needs this kind of careful and sensitive attention. (Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy)
Thomas Moore
Plato said it first: We all have a degree of madness that can serve our creativity. Nassir Ghaemi has said it again in the language of psychiatry, in a book that is so well written and so full of engaging stories that you'll want to embrace his point of view. Dr. Ghaemi turns upside down our usual way of seeing. You will enjoy this challenging book and be thrown into wonder about the value of sanity and the perverse gifts of neurosis. (Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and Care of the Soul in Medicine)
From the Publisher
“A glistening psychological history, faceted largely by the biographies of eight famous leaders… A First-Rate Madness is carefully plotted and sensibly argued.”

“Ghaemi isn’t the first to claim that madness is a close relative of genius, or even the first to extend the idea into politics. But he does go further than others… His explanations are elegant, too—intuitively accurate and banked off the latest psychiatric research.”

“A provocative thesis… Ghaemi’s book deserves high marks for original thinking.” –THE WASHINGTON POST

“Ghaemi is a remarkably disciplined writer, and he examines both psychiatry and history with impressive clarity and sensitivity. A First-Rate Madness will almost certainly be one of the most fascinating books of the year, not just because of the author's lucid prose and undeniable intelligence, but because of his provocative thesis: "For abnormal challenges, abnormal leaders are needed."” —NPR.ORG

“Provocative, fascinating.” –SALON.COM

Daniel Dennett
Nassir Ghaemi reinvents psychohistory as a serious form of scientific inquiry. Along the way, he presents a bounty of startling facts about some of history's great heroes and villains. Under his highly informed and skeptical gaze, our burnished icons—Lincoln and Sherman, Churchill and Hitler, Kennedy and Nixon, and others—are in for some serious resculpting. (Daniel Dennett, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University; author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea)

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First-Rate Madness 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
Meg-ABookishAffair More than 1 year ago
Studying what makes leaders great and what qualities leaders have in common is nothing new but the way that Ghaemi looks at people like Ted Turner, JFK, and Gandhi is off the beaten path. We want to know what made these people great. Why did they rise to the top? How did they become such great leaders? Can we learn from them? Can we emulate their characteristics? This book covers some of the most well known men from the world's recent history. All of the men that Ghaemi covers have one thing in common, they have some sort of mood disorder. I really liked the way that this book was laid out. Ghaemi devotes a chapter to each of the characteristics that he claims are both present in great leaders and those that have mood disorders including realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity. Each chapter begins with a description of the characteristic and then profiles of leaders who exemplified those characteristics. It was really interesting to see how that connection between a mood disorder, something that is often seen as debilitating in some way or limiting, and great leadership in tough times. The book was fascinating. Ghaemi looks at personal letters and history to show how these leaders were affected by their mood disorders. Ghaemi tests his hypothesis even further by looking at how leaders without mood disorders sometimes don't handle tough times as well as they could. He looks specifically at Tony Blair and George W. Bush. One thing I did wonder is whether or not Ghaemi believes that you must have some sort of mood disorder in order to be a good leader. That point is never really made clear in the book. You don't have to be a psychology major to get anything out of this book. Ghaemi does a really good job of both drawing the reader in and giving a thorough picture of where he is coming from. One of my favorite things about books is when I'm left with new questions to explore after I'm finished reading and A First Rate Madness definitely did that for me! Bottom line: This is a very interesting study in leadership and gave me a lot of things to think about. This book was definitely enjoyable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nassir Ghaemi's "A First Rate Madness" is a carefully written layman's book on the relationship between leadership and mental abnormality and/or illness. The author posits that this relationship can take strange forms and "illness" doesn't always mean deficit. As a bipolar, I learned about my mental makeup while reading about famous leaders whose lives were often strangely similar to mine(and not always in a good way). The author's concept of "empathy" stemming from past depressive episodes can teach us both biography and psychology. Dr. Ghaemi is a political liberal, and it shows through in spots. Overall, he tries to remain evenhanded and largely succeeds. This conservative bipolar, showing perhaps "openness to experience" recommends "A First Rate Madness".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I began reading this book with high hopes. The premise is interesting, but the further I got into the book, the less I enjoyed it. Ghaemi is an academic, and as such should know better than to insert himself into the narrative. He frequently pats himself on the back for his groundbreaking research into historical documents, which is terribly annoying, and unforgivably references himself throughout the work. Also troubling in an academic work is the lack of citations, whether in footnote or endnote form, throughout the text. There are endnotes, and they are occasionally referenced in the narrative, but actual in text citations are lacking. The biggest problem is his blatant insertion of his opinions throughout the book. The fact that he has no reservations about putting his political beliefs in this book is bad enough, but many times his does this with a very loose grasp of historical material. He also fails to offer a reasonable amount of diversity in the leaders he evaluates. Comparing Sherman to Grant to Lincoln isn't exactly a diverse representation of American leadership during the Civil War. Extolling the virtues of FDR and JFK, while lambasting George Bush and Tony Blair, also fails to create a diverse picture of Western leadership in the 20th century. The links to Hitler and JFK are somewhat strange, and the parallel of Bush and Blair to Nazi officers is just ridiculous. The evaluations of Gandhi and MLK Jr. are speculative at best, and the amount of conjecture is insulting. Overall it seems that Ghaemi is championing the idea of bipolar leaders, but a cohesive thesis is somewhat lost by the end of the book. In the end, the book starts with an interesting hypothesis, but rambles on with nonsensical support and excessive conjecture that leaves the reader wishing for more hard facts than opinion.
OverComeIT More than 1 year ago
this is just a great book, i am four chapter's into it and it keeps getting more interesting as i go. The part that really caught my attention was the whole look at Winston Churchill. very interesting. could use more material for the price but overall a definite 5 star.
watkd25 More than 1 year ago
I read this book during the winter of 2011 when school was out. This book is theoretical, to some extent, and thought provoking. Some people question some of the data within, but you have to experience these mental illnesses to understand them but do not romanticize them as the author states. I was a little disappointed with Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill being covered for roughly 10 pages each. There is so much information on these two statesmen that I felt they deserved more coverage. As I have seen on book reviews elsewhere, Franklin Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, GA not Hot Springs as the book mentions. And some of the information I did not personally agree with completely when discussing the mental health of current leaders. I hope that the original author and other writers will some day expand on this information as I believe it is worth reseaching. Besides these errors, I recommend this book.
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*Wondering why your never on* hey cory
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yay ur gone
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Haha *holding ur hand talking all sexy ttou* bye ill miss u
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Wildbookreader More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to love this book, and I do have to give it a few positive mentions. I did learn some interesting historical facts and I think he had good points in the last chapter on stigma, but with that said on to the negatives. First of all, he makes several inaccurate statements, at one time he says that personality has three aspects when in truth most psychologists and scientists now agree that it has five. Also, on page 197 I believe it was he has a paragraph about how narcissism is not real or scientifically validated when in reality it is in the DSM-IV-TR as Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If he disagrees with the disorder and makes an argument for why he doesn't think it exists that is one thing, but just stating that it is not real or scientifically validated and not backing up your argument is a no-no for me. Also, I thought he did some leaping for the diagnosis of a few of the historical characters. While it is true that having family members with mental illness can mean you are at a higher risk for developing a mental disorder just because someone has a relative with a mental disorder and maybe mentioned feeling depressed a time or two does not in my opinion justify a leap to a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, for example. I really did want to like the book, but there were just too many leaps and holes in it for me.
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