The Leader’s Mental Health: The Degree from the University of Suffering They Will Never Tell You About

 “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.”

Nassir Ghaemi, PhD

I am working on a piece for The Good Men Project about the Leader’s personal experience with mental and emotional health. I am interested in the topic not because I am a leader in the Mental Health and Addiction field and not because I have a problem to solve for one of my teams. I am not simply doing ‘research for a friend.’ This topic is for me and it is for many of my friends, colleagues and coworkers.

Leadership has had an effect on my mental health. I am okay, but I know from personal experience and from observing the lives of many of my friends that leadership demands a great deal from the bearer.

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi’s published an article in the Wall Street Journal about Mental Illness and leadership. Ghaemi talks about the depression and suicidality of well known leaders:

  • Winston Churchill
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Martin Luther King Jr.

The article makes a point that during seasons of change in a country and in an organization, a leader who bears personal scars may be the ideal leader.

“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.”

Earlier this year I wrote about my personal experience with anxiety and depression in a piece titled WMD: The Weapons of My Depression. The title references “WMD” which a cryptic acronym for “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Depression has been like that for me.

Dr. Ghaemi’s article has not been my experience. My depression and my seasons of anxiety have not made me feel like I was a better leader. When a leader experiences the pain of what society calls “Mental Illness,” it leaves scars. To the leader, the scars may seem obvious and loom large and there may be a lingering residual shame. As the scars heal they bring out a unique form of resilience which can be difficult for the leader to see because it is so personal.

Ghaemi has found that leaders who deal with their own emotional pain come away with vital strengths to add to their resume (although they will never list the source for the skill set as coming from the University of Suffering).

  • Personal experience with mild depression can build realism which can help to counteract a tendency of leadership towards pride, competitiveness or unfounded optimism.
  • Suffering with emotional pain can increase empathy, understanding and compassion.
  • Personally, I have found that experience with depression and anxiety have helped me to reflect and learn new approaches to help myself. In turn, I am better able to support others in my team. Pain also pushes me to take emotional risks and be vulnerable.

I need your help. I appreciate any feedback or comments on two areas of questions. This will contribute to my thinking and my future content. If you respond to my post and prefer that your comment remains private just indicate that in your comment.

  • If you learn that your leader faces their own bouts of depression or anxiety does this effect your level of confidence in the person? Can you identify strengths they have learned from their experience and how this has shaped their career? (For more see post on Mental Health: The Silent Wait of Depression).


  • As a leader, how has your own personal experience with depression, anxiety or other areas of emotional health affected you? How have they changed you? What strengths have you built as a result of your experience? Who do you go to when you face struggles with your own mental and emotional experience? 


“Their weakness is the secret of their strength.”

Nassir Ghaemi

Keep it Real

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