Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why I Probably Won't Read Dr. Nassir Ghaemi's New Book, "A First Rate Madness"

A couple of my blog feeds popped up today with reviews of Dr. Nassir Ghaemi's book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  His thesis is that many great leaders of the world have suffered from mood disorders, ranging from major depression to bipolar disorder.  John McManamy posits that President Obama may be "too normal" to be an effective president for these trying times.  Tom Wooten, author of The Bipolar Advantage, wrote a review of the book entitled at PsychCentral entitled "We Need A Bipolar President".

According to Dr Ghaemi, many "great figures in history" have had mood disorders.  Ghandi, Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., General Sherman are but some of the examples.  Neville Chamberlain and General McClellan were excellent peacetime leaders, but were basically too normal to meet the challenges of a crisis.  Mood disorders, you see, give a person experience with crisis situations and how to handle them.

I have not read Dr. Ghaemi's book.  I probably won't bother, because I consider its methodology to be critically flawed in numerous ways.

The first flaw is the diagnosis of these "great leaders".  Psychiatrists generally diagnose people in person.  Has Dr. Ghaemi met any of these guys?  Not unless he held a seance to do so.  I realize that you can get a pretty good picture of a person from reading their diaries or their correspondence, but I must question the validity of diagnosing anyone who's been dead for decades.  

For instance, according to Wooten's review, Lincoln gets a diagnosis of depression, and this condition made him a great leader.  General McClellan, on the other hand, was too sane to be an effective wartime general, and this "normality" was his undoing.  Really?  McClellan? Too sane?  

McClellan had delusions of grandeur, writing to his wife that he could install himself as a dictator, should he wish it, because he was just that popular.  He was also notoriously rude and insubordinate to his commanding officers and his Commander-in-Chief, Lincoln.  On the other hand, he's famous for sitting on his ass in front of the Confederate army, believing himself to be outnumbered and outgunned, while the Union army in fact enjoyed a two-to-one advantage.  He refused to believe any evidence to the contrary.  Is this a leader undone by "normality"?    

Now let's move on to the selection of "great leaders".  Churchill, Ghandi, King.  Sure.  But Kennedy?  He was dead before he'd served three years as President.  He simply did not get the chance to do enough for anybody to evaluate his "greatness".  He gets mad props for the space program, but he also landed us in Viet Nam.  If he'd lived, it's not clear that he would have had a shining legacy.

The third flaw I see concerns the conflation of creativity, realism, empathy, and resilience with mood disorders.  This is where it gets personal.  I also have ADHD in addition to my mood disorder, and I can't count the number of times people have told me, "oh, but it makes you more creative! All creative people have ADHD!" (I'm an artist).  Thing is, not all creative people have ADHD, or bipolar, or depression.  I know plenty of these people, and I can tell you that they damn well have an easier time doing their work and getting it out in the world than I do.  

Conversely, there are plenty of people with ADHD, bipolar disorder, or depression who are not creative, realistic, or empathetic.  For instance, I'm only aware of one attempt to analyze the "ADHD advantage" using actual data.  The researchers in question found that there wasn't one.  In actuality, people with ADHD fared worse over the long run in terms of employment, relationships, and run-ins with the law.

Maybe mood disorders really are different.  Maybe Dr. Ghaemi's book actually backs up his premise with actual, valid statistics, and the "great leaders" are just given as possibly valid examples.  If I read a review that reflects this, I'll change my mind and check out his book.  Until then, I'll stick to reading his actual research.


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