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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness Paperback – June 26, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“A glistening psychological history, faceted largely by the biographies of eight famous leaders… A First-Rate Madness is carefully plotted and sensibly argued.”

“Ghaemi isn’t the first to claim that madness is a close relative of genius, or even the first to extend the idea into politics.  But he does go further than others… His explanations are elegant, too—intuitively accurate and banked off the latest psychiatric research.”

“A provocative thesis… Ghaemi’s book deserves high marks for original thinking.” –THE WASHINGTON POST

“Ghaemi is a remarkably disciplined writer, and he examines both psychiatry and history with impressive clarity and sensitivity. A First-Rate Madness will almost certainly be one of the most fascinating books of the year, not just because of the author's lucid prose and undeniable intelligence, but because of his provocative thesis: "For abnormal challenges, abnormal leaders are needed."” --NPR.ORG

“Provocative, fascinating.” –SALON.COM

About the Author

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He has published more than a hundred scientific articles and several books on psychiatry.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (June 26, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143121332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143121336
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (152 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #34,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

185 of 203 people found the following review helpful By David J. Spellman on August 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is the best book I have read all year.
First of all, Dr. Ghaemi is a world-class psychiatrist; he is THE expert on issues of mood disorder (my wife is a psychiatrist and says that Dr. Ghaemi is the very best in the nation in his Continuing Medical Education teaching). So, he truly knows what he is writing about.
The structure of the book essentially follows the pattern of a chapter which describes the state-of-the-art in psychiatry as to a given diagnosis, followed by mini-biographies in two chapters of two historical figures who are exemplars of leadership with the particular diagnosis that Dr. Ghaemi has described. The manner in which he uses historical evidence to arrive at his diagnosis is seamless.
Among the historical figures profiled are Lincoln, General Sherman, Hitler, Gandhi, Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR and JFK. There is a profile of Ted Turner, unusual because he is the only living example profiled (and the only non-political leader). Toward the end of the book there is extensive commentary about Nixon, Dubya, Tony Blair and some insights about Clinton, Truman, Eisenhower and even Newt Gingrich along the way.
I have read at least one biography of each figure he profiles (except for Ted Turner). I can vouch for the historical accuracy of Dr. Ghaemi's book in all regards except for two minor points about FDR: he was not a member of Woodrow Wilson's cabinet and he was not Secretary of the Navy (he was #2, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy).
The endnotes are also a magnificent treasure-trove of information.
Superb book, well-written by someone who knows his material.
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55 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Robert David STEELE Vivas HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I am torn between a 4 and a 5 I read all the other reviews. I rate this book a five because it advances appreciation for the integration of psychology with history, and contributes somewhat--not the last word--to the rather vital discussion of why so many of our "leaders" are pedestrian, and what marks those who rise to extraordinary heights in the face of complex near catastrophic challenges.

Those critical of the book for the relatively brevity of the biographic sections, and the occasional mistakes, are in my view missing the huge point that really matters: in a time of extreme complexity and ambiguity, leaders with the most open of minds capable of very unconventional thinking are vital, and it just so happens that what what some call lunatic fringe or borderline personality have "the right stuff" for such times.

I have five pages of notes on this book. Below are some highlights and a few quotes.

The author refers to an inverse law of sanity and early on quotes Sherman as saying "In these times it is hard to say who are sane and who are insane." That is precisely how I feel as I watch Wall Street, Big Oil, the Military-Industrial Complex, and a two-party tyranny with a lame President pretending they have not already driven the Republic over the cliff.

The author's core argument is that in times of crisis, mentally ill leaders do better. While he exaggerates for effect, his essential argument is that "the establishment" produces sterile "well-adjusted" leaders who are best at following convention and staying within their "lanes in the road.
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79 of 105 people found the following review helpful By M. S. Driver on August 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The title will certainly attract readers. This doctor's main thesis really should be at least considered as a pretty good explanation of the actions and behaviors (or lack of same) of some of our leaders, especially under duress. However, we probably should not find ourselves electing only "mentally ill" candidates just so that there will be highly creative and resilient people in the saddle in case a crisis occurs.

From the title alone, the reader may immediately infer that this book is all about the genius of schizophrenic presidents. That's not what the author wants to tell us. Dr. Ghaemi seems to have only one way to define "mental illness": "manic-depression" (or "bipolar disorder", as it's called today). He doesn't really come out at the start and state that it's only bipolar disorder that he will be discussing with regard to certain leaders. But schizophrenia and paranoia do not seem to fit into his analysis. He even states that neurosis is a normal part of the human personality, which came as a surprise to me.

I was ultimately satisfied by Dr. Ghaemi's arguments on the behaviors of the so-called "mentally ill" leaders he singles out as examples. The chapters on JFK and on Hitler and his Nazi entourage are real eye-openers.

But I was shocked by the doctor's arguments regarding Nixon, and by his dismissal of the extensive media and historical commentary, as well as the observations of millions of contemporary TV viewers, about this president's clearly visible mental state. He didn't sell me on this one.

As to the leaders whom Dr. Ghaemi does not select for his category of "mentally ill" -- among them Tony Blair, Truman and Eisenhower -- I agree with his assessment of the first man, but absolutely not the second or third.
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