A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness - Nassir Ghaemi The Good

A First-Rate Madness has a fascinating premise: that in times of crisis, mentally abnormal leaders are more effective than mentally healthy ones. For various reasons, many of which are included in this book, I actually tend to agree with the author, and even if I didn't, his theory would be intriguing food for thought. Additionally, Ghaemi writes well and is consistently engaging, keeping his work from becoming dry as one reads.

The Bad

I have extreme reservations about the evidence Ghaemi gives to support his claims. There's a lot of cherry picking, both of subjects and of symptoms. Clearly no book can cover every major world leader, but he's chosen to highlight only a very few when simply shortening the sections on each would've made room for a larger, more varied sample size. Additionally, any studies that don't agree with the theme are brushed aside, and the symptoms he focuses on in the case of each leader are clearly cherry-picked from often limited available information. One suspected incident of depression does not a depressive or bipolar make; half-hearted juvenile attempts at suicide do not denote a suicidal or depressed adult. Beyond even that, there's a lot of assumptions made and only the flimsiest of contexts given, which makes me wary of putting much stock in the "examples" on which Ghaemi basis his ideas.

I think the idea is good and deserves major study, and I would love to read the result of one. Unfortunately, this isn't it.

The "What the Hell?" Moment

So I was nearing the end of the book and all was going pretty well, I was disappointed but still intrigued, and while I hadn't yet settled on my rating (since I hadn't yet finished reading), I figured things would hold steady until the end. And then I reached the top of page 257 and, as Ghaemi is discussing the negative stigma attached to mental illness, he writes this:

"This stigma is the basis, I think, for most of the intuitively negative reactions that readers may have to this book's theme."

Passive aggressive attempt to foist any failures of the book onto the reader? Sorta seems that way. It's not the theme that gets a negative reaction, sir, but the sparse study and supporting information. Perhaps he meant it innocently (I'm sure many will agree that he did), but for me it shows a distinct lack of faith, either in his work or his readership, neither one of which is forgivable. So really, Nassir Ghaemi, what the hell?

The Summary

An excellent theory, intriguing and deserving of further work, but the book itself fails to deliver on its premise and makes the factual, scientific side of me squirm uneasily. Take it or leave it, the book doesn't make much of a difference either way.