In last weekend’s WSJ review, an adapted piece was written on the value of mental illness, specifically depression, in helping define great leaders. It seems that mild depression provides people with a greater clarity to see the world as it truly is, as well as a greater ability to adapt in the midst of crisis. I should note that not all depressed leaders are great. A story I always found remarkable pertains to Joseph Stalin at the beginning of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. It is reported that Stalin was in a state of shock for weeks after the invasion, and it was so bad that he was not even running the nation during that time.
When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity.
Consider Neville Chamberlain. Before the Second World War, he was a highly respected businessman from Birmingham, a popular mayor and an esteemed chancellor of the exchequer. He was charming, sober, smart—sane.
Winston Churchill, by contrast, rose to prominence during the Boer War and the first World War. Temperamental, cranky, talkative, bombastic—he bothered many people. During the “wilderness” years of the 1930s, while the suave Chamberlain got all the plaudits, Churchill’s own party rejected him.
When not irritably manic in his temperament, Churchill experienced recurrent severe depressive episodes, during many of which he was suicidal. Even into his later years, he would complain about his “black dog” and avoided ledges and railway platforms, for fear of an impulsive jump. “All it takes is an instant,” he said.
Abraham Lincoln famously had many depressive episodes, once even needing a suicide watch, and was treated for melancholy by physicians. Mental illness has touched even saintly icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom made suicide attempts in adolescence and had at least three severe depressive episodes in adulthood.
Aristotle was the first to point out the link between madness and genius, including not just poets and artists but also political leaders. I would argue that the Inverse Law of Sanity also applies to more ordinary endeavors. In business, for instance, 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…
“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.
Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control…
Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.