Feb 14, 2012

Leadership and Mental Illness

David Dobbs over at Neuron Culture dissects a new book by Nhassir Ghaemi,  A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness.  The book explores the idea that depression and mania can have its upsides for leaders facing near insurmountable odds.  The struggle with depression, or Black Dog as Samuel Johnson called it, "can generate the resilience, determination, and ruthless focus needed to counter external challenges."
Winston Churchill fought throughout his life with depression and thoughts of suicide.  Depression, which can bring someone to the bring of collapse under normal circumstances, as it did to Churchill in 1930, can also "generate such a talent for enduring murky darkness that the sufferer can enthusiastically attack even so enormous a problem as Nazi Germany —  grateful to face a challenge both external and relatively coherent."
This vulnerability can also generate resilience and perhaps an increased empathy.  Could General Sherman's plan to bring total war to the South be a sign of this increased empathy brought on by his well documented mental illness.  The author includes this open letter from Sherman to the mayor of Atlanta to illustrate this seemingly contradictory conclusion:
… You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people of Atlanta can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war; which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride.
We don’t want your negroes, or your horses, or your houses, or your lands, or anything you have, but we do want and will have a just obedience to the laws of the United States. That we will have, and, if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.…
I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we find thousands upon thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and who we could not see starve. Now that war comes home to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent carloads of soldiers and ammunitions, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes and under the Government of their inheritance.…
But, my dear Sirs, when peace does come, you may call on me for any thing. Then will I share with you the last cracker, and work with you to shield your homes and families against danger from every quarter.
Now you must go, and take with you the old and feeble, feed and nourish them, and build for them, amid quiet places, proper habitations to shield them against the weather until the mad passions of men cool down, and allow them in peace once more to settle their old homes at Atlanta.
Yours in haste,
W. T. Sherman, Maj.-Gen., commanding
In the letter one can see his empathy for  the people his is about to paradoxically deprive of their basic needs.
Sherman's almost reckless gamble to bring 80,000 on a march through the backcountry of the South without a supply train could have also been brought on by his manic depression. "This is the sort of sustained but controlled mania, of bounteous energy and unshakeable confidence, uniquely conducive to completing a great work. And as a work of war, his march qualifies."

I live in Columbia South Carolina, and here Sherman had always been seen as a crazed villain for burning the city.  But really he was trying to save the nation from prolonged suffering with a bold, perhaps maniacal, master stroke.

Source Neuron Culture

1 comment:

  1. I have always been very intriged by Sherman. I will try to get this book. Thank you for the review. Another interesting historical character is Merriweather Lewis. There is a profile of his possible bipolar disorder in the book by Kay Redfield Jamison, "Night Falls Fast", an exploration of suicide.