Much Madness is divinest Sense—
To a discerning Eye—
Much Sense—the starkest Madness—
Emily Dickinson, #620
Early last spring I had lunch with another head of school to get some advice. I was struggling with one of the thorniest issues I have faced. To quote Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, “squeaky bum time” had arrived. The entire scenario had me wondering in ways I hadn’t before about whether I even wanted to lead a school. (n.b. The situation ended as well as it could have, and I love being a head of school.)
The conversation helped immensely. As usually happens, we also talked about other challenges of the role and shared some war stories. Towards the end he said, “The things we do, we have to be crazy.” In such conversations people often make such off-hand comments, sort of a hybrid between self-deprecation and venting. But it draws attention to the rather ludicrous way some of us choose to put ourselves in stressful leadership positions, whether in independent schools or any field. I believe we are called rather than crazy. But a book I recently read suggests perhaps some craziness is actually desirable.
In A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, Nassir Ghaemi posits:
Most of us make a basic and reasonable assumption about sanity: we think it produces good results, and we believe that insanity is a problem. This book argues that in at least one vitally important circumstance insanity produces good results and sanity is a problem. In times of crisis, we may be better off being led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones. (2)
Not exactly conventional wisdom. Ghaemi bases his logic on one key premise: “Four key elements of some mental illnesses—mania and depression—appear to promote crisis leadership: realism, resilience, empathy, and creativity” (3). Without diving too deeply into the sea of psychology, where I surely would drown, or providing more than historical references you can explore on your own, I will summarize Ghaemi’s ideas for each element:
o Creativity has been a buzzword for a few years now, bandied in various ways. Ghaemi asserts meaningful creativity in leadership means not just coming up with solutions, but also having identified the right problems to solve. True creativity involves integrative complexity. Often it is preceded by the classic manic symptom of a flight of ideas preceding a breakthrough moment. Ghaemi cites Sherman’s strategy and tactics in the Civil War and Ted Turner’s work in building the CNN empire.
o Realism includes not just a clear sense of circumstances, but an accurate assessment of control over one’s environment. Philosopher Karl Jaspers argued that response to failure often determines the person we become, and Ghaemi says that early failures “inoculate against future illusion” (52). Examples are Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
o Empathy has been proven a neuro-biological fact, and it occurs when we recognize the “inescapable web of interdependence” (80). When depressed, “one knows the truth of empathy—that our fundamental similarities make us feel similarly—more viscerally and painfully than normal people do” (75). Per Ghaemi, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King suffered early bouts of severe depression, even attempting suicide.
o Resilience is the “minds’ vaccine” (112) and comes from the “steeling effect of trauma” (120). The ultimate effect of an experience is not really what happens to us; instead, how we feel about it that makes it seriously negative or harmful. Ghaemi says the hyperthymic personality has “an innate immunity to trauma” (122), as exhibited by Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Certainly we crave these qualities in all our leaders. No doubt they become even more essential during crises. So Ghaemi’s thesis makes perfect sense. But it prompts me to wonder about leadership in normal times, particularly the implications for leaders who haven’t suffered any sort of mental health issues. What are the potential downsides? Ghaemi writes:
…the typical non-crisis leader is idealistic, a bit too optimistic about the world and himself; he is insensitive to suffering, having not suffered much himself. Often he comes from a privileged background and has not been tested by adversity; he thinks himself better than others and fails to see what he has in common with them. His past has served him well, and he seeks to preserve it; he doesn’t acclimate well to novelty. (2)
Later in the book, he adds,
The homoclite does not fail often, and when he does, he learns little. If he fails too much, he disintegrates rather than grows from the experience. Rarely having been tested in his youth, he hasn’t had a chance to develop the resilience that might see him through later hardships. Having suffered little, he can’t empathize with those who do. Having lived a secure life, he cannot recognize and react to hazards. (229)
If we recall our Greek myths, we see the perfect recipe for hubris when enough of any of these ingredients enters the mix.
Of course, in either case we are talking about extremes. Yet it does point to a certain irony. When we look for leaders, we tend to look for those who seem to have it all together, who project a reassuring confidence. At times it seems we imagine someone superhuman swooping in to solve basic human problems. And schools are, at their essence, very human places. That’s why I grow nervous when I hear people moving into leadership roles declare what changes they plan to make before they have spent much, if any, truly meaningful time in their new school. How can one really know what needs to be done? How it should be done? How can a new leader be totally sure he or she is the person to make it happen, particularly as a lone ranger? One thing we should learn from superheroes is that they usually have a very distinct skill set…and also a definite weakness.
Similarly, with so many schools now stressing leadership for students, we often make the same mistake. Who usually is tapped or elected as the student leader? Identified as growing into a leader? The young person who shines in everything. But there are no guarantees. Examples abound of people who soared throughout school, only to crash later; and of people who struggled through school, then succeeded fabulously.
I don’t know of many leadership programs that stress creativity, realism, empathy, and resilience. Certainly in the programs I’ve done, they are suggested amidst the various profiles and processes and reflections. We’re told all about emotional intelligence and communications strategies and meeting methodologies; we ponder the nuances of case studies and engage in role plays and jump into team-building exercises. Outside of those programs we read all sorts of prose promising to make us better leaders. However, as Marcus Buckingham writes in the June 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, “Virtually every corporate and academic leadership development program is founded on the same model—we can call it the formulaic model. It tries to collect all the various approaches to leadership, shaves off the weird outliers, and packages the rest into a formula” (“Leadership Development in the Age of the Algorithm,” 90). He add, “Even in firms where leadership development is a priority, the content served up is generic—it shows little understanding of you“ (90).
Buckingham’s comment cuts to the chase. All the study helps, and leaders must avail themselves of anything which can help them grow more effective. But reading Ghaemi’s book drives home an eternal truth: effective leadership depends on having certain human qualities. And each of those is needed to a different degree in various situations. Are you the right person in the right place at the right point in time for the right purpose? No matter what, to improve as a leader, first one must improve as a person. That may involve working with an executive coach…or perhaps even a psychotherapist.
Which returns us to the original question prompted by that lunch conversation and Ghaemi’s book: Do you have to be crazy? Probably a bit so, at least in the loosest use of the term. And perhaps in the most extreme of situations. Still, I don’t know that I’d willingly suffer what I imagine to be the utter despair of mental illness to become a better leader. I wonder, however, if Emily Dickinson wasn’t right when she wrote, “A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King” (#1333).
Cross-posted on Introit blog.