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Can Serious Depression Make You Lead Better?

An article in The Wall Street Journal this weekend written by a psychiatry professor at Tufts University School of Medicine suggests that leaders who suffer from a serious depressive disorder may have some advantages in crisis leadership than those who are mentally healthy. Nassir Ghaemi, who directs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, claims the traits of empathy and realism are encouraged in mildly depressed patients, which can at times assist them in realizing opportunities that others might not see. Ghaemi wrote in his article, “The sanest of CEOs may be just right during prosperous times, allowing the past to predict the future. But during a period of change, a different kind of leader—quirky, odd, even mentally ill—is more likely to see business opportunities that others cannot imagine.”

Ghaemi cites the life histories of great leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of which suffered with major or manic depressive episodes and periodic suicidal thoughts. He said Churchill in particular “saw the events of his day with a clarity and realism lacking in saner, more stable men.” Ghaemi concluded, “Great crisis leaders are not like the rest of us; nor are they like mentally healthy leaders. When society is happy, they toil in sadness…coping with an illness that can be debilitating, even deadly…When traditional approaches begin to fail, however, great crisis leaders see new opportunities. When the past no longer guides the future, they invent a new future (and) create new solutions…their weakness is the secret of their strength.”

Ghaemi is the author of the new book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.

What do you think? Agree or disagree? How does a leader’s mental health affect their ability to lead? Share your comments below.