In his new book, A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, Ghaemi lays out the argument that leaders with some mental illnesses, particularly mania or depression, are often better in times of crisis.
Ghaemi came to that conclusion after studying the lives and medical records of many great leaders, and found that quite a few — from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. — had some form of mental illness.
"Historians have often not paid much attention to these features of their lives; they’ve just written them off as irrelevant to their leadership," Ghaemi tells NPR’s Laura Sullivan. "So one thing I wanted to do was just to show that these symptoms not only were present in their lives, but were relevant to their leadership."
Ghaemi says a lot of research shows that there are some benefits to mania and depression.
"Creativity and resilience is higher in people with mania and realism and empathy is higher in people with depression compared to normal subjects," he says. "The problem often with mentally healthy, average leaders is — even though they’re not weak in the sense of not having any of these qualities — they often don’t have enough to meet the very high demands of crises."
Other recent leaders seem to be closer to our definition of mental health. Ghaemi says that George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who were both in office during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “have backgrounds that do not show any evidence of severe depression, severe mania or extreme personality traits. So there’s no reason to claim that they have any mental illness; they’re within the range of average mental health.”
But that itself could be a handicap.
"One might examine how they dealt with the 9/11 crisis and whether they were realistic enough," Ghaemi says. "And whether their inability to be realistic about some things, such as weapons of mass destruction and that rationale for invading Iraq."
Ghaemi wonders whether President Obama, whom he points out has described himself as “well adjusted,” might actually be “a little less normal than we’ve been led to believe.”
"It’s possible," Ghaemi says, "if we understand from his memoirs, that he dealt with a lot of identity crises personally and racially, which may have influenced his moods, his anxiety, his personality and made him much more nuanced than the average person might be."
If holding out hope that a president of the United States has at least a little bit of mental illness seems strange, Ghaemi says, he hopes his book helps to correct “a deep prejudice in our society.”
"Many of us just believe that mental illness is inherently bad and mental health is inherently good," he says. "And the message from both the science and the history that I’m discussing here is that there’s some good and some bad to both mental illness and mental health. I think the idea of a ‘No Drama Obama,’ of this very average, stable, healthy person, is a reflection … of that stigma, of the idea that if there’s any mental abnormality, it must be harmful. And in fact, if he has a little bit of drama to him, it might be quite helpful."