Madness in Command

"Depression in Command"

An article in the Wall Street Journal challenges a fundamental idea that we use in choosing leadership, assigning security clearances, and indeed even in determining responsibility in the legal sense of the term. Maybe what we need in a leader is madness...

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.
There's a lot of sense to the concept. However, we routinely engage in psychological screening of job candidates, especially for military or leadership positions. The only jobs we don't psychologically screen for are elected officials, many of whom do seem to experience some of the less productive forms of madness -- an intense focus on their own importance, for example. If the theory is right, these tests could be stripping out the very people best suited to military leadership in a genuine crisis. And why should we not believe that? Many generals, like Sherman or Grant, found a success in war that eluded their peacetime efforts: Sherman was a repeated failure, and Grant an alcoholic whose brilliance in maneuvering an army at war was not equaled when he became the leader of the bureaucracy during peacetime.

Maybe we should consider this a reason to vote for someone: that he, or she, is sensitive enough to reality to be depressed now and then!

No comments: