Can Being Mad Help You Run a Country?

The mentally crackers Muammar isn't alone when it comes to leading crazy.


Can Being Mad Help You Run a Country?
Flamboyant, nuts, and as of today, location unknown. (Photo: Max Rossi/Reuters)

Muammar Gaddafi, the man who has run Libya for more than 40 years, is not just a despotic, tyrannical ruler, he is completely mad. Not just a few clowns short of a circus, but visibly barking.

Let’s start with the gear. Who in their right minds would choose to affect a style made famous by Michael Jackson, even down to the face mask

Gaddafi also seems to get off on bizarre displays of public behaviour, like the time he repeatedly broke wind during a BBC television interview, or when he summoned the world’s journalists to a press conference, appeared dressed as Sherlock Holmes and then refused to talk to anyone.

What’s going on behind the costumes? Gaddafi’s first published work was a book of cod-economic and moral philosophy. He believes it makes him out to be one of the greatest political thinkers of our time. It has been described as “little more than a series of fatuous diatribes.”

And his self-image?

"I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level." (Arab League Summit, March 2009.)

Suggesting a dose of mental illness could help their rise to greatness is like telling a teenager that getting a tattoo is cool. We shouldn’t  encourage them.

You would think delusional insanity would count against you when it comes to the job spec for running a country, but Gaddafi’s derangement apparently puts him in good company.

To cut it as a world leader, being a few fries short of the full happy meal is potentially an advantage.

Among the people who have shaped the world as we know it, a disproportionate number were mentally ill. Even the good guys.

Winston Churchill struggled with depression, as did JFK. Martin Luther King and Ghandi both tried to commit suicide at an early age, and Abraham Lincoln struggled with his demons.

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a mental health specialist from Boston, has written a book about it.

According to his theory:

"Creativity and resilience is higher in people with mania, and realism and empathy is higher in people with depression compared to normal subjects…the problem often with mentally healthy, average leaders is…they often don't have enough [creativity, resiliance and empathy] to meet the very high demands of crises."

Really? Really?

Most people take the old-fashioned view that unstable rulers giving off the whiff of derangement are the very last people we need in times of crisis. But Dr. Ghaemi disagrees. In fact, he thinks Tony Blair and George W. Bush failed to get a grip of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq because they weren’t mad enough. In Dr Ghaemi’s view:

 “When our world is in tumult, mentally ill leaders function best.”

Um…right. Turning that around for a moment, has Dr. Ghaemi considered a mentally ill leader might just be the reason there is a crisis? They always seem to be around when things go catastrophically wrong. Coincidence?

Dr. Ghaemi says he wrote his book as an attempt to destigmatize mental illness and correct "a deep prejudice in our society," not as a potential screening technique for future leaders.

Fair enough, but there’s always been a sneaking suspicion that most politicians are a teensy bit unhinged at the best of times. The ideological conviction, the need to be loved by as many people as possible, and the grim-faced determination to win power at all costs don’t exactly add up to Joe Normal. Suggesting a dose of mental illness could help their rise to greatness is like telling a teenager that getting a tattoo is cool. We shouldn’t  encourage them.

When it comes to mental health problems and politics, you’re only a few years in power from letting your eccentricities turn into full-blown Gadaffiness. And as we know, that way madness lies.


I heard about this on NPR! Though great leaders have had mental illnesses, I don't know about it being a pre-requisite...