“There has never been any great genius without a spice of madness,” said the Roman philosopher Seneca. Does this also apply to entrepreneurs?
A new book, called A First-Rate Madness, written by psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi, postulates that there is a link between mental illness and successful leadership. In particular, the author argues that in times of crisis, the best leaders are the slightly insane ones. For example, he argues that Ted Turner, the inventor of 24-hour television news with CNN, has suffered from bipolar disorder – but that this condition helped him become a billionaire. He inherited his family business at 21 but his creativity and unconventional approach contributed hugely to his achievements.
Many of the finest entrepreneurs I know are extremists – and might be considered a little psychotic. They frequently display traits that are also attributable to the mentally ill. Quite a few are impulsive, domineering, grandiose, fast-talking, distractible and addicted to risk. Another book, published in 2005, called The Hypomanic Edge by John D. Gartner – also a professor of psychiatry – suggests that hypomania endows many Americans with an unusual level of energy, creativity, enthusiasm and wild daring. This mild condition – as opposed to the severe illness suffered by full-blown manic-depressives – is not a necessary prerequisite for those seeking to change the world but it probably facilitates those ambitions.
Is hypomania a gift or a burden? The rebellious temperament and messianic zeal that characterises so many empire builders must be very exhausting. Sufferers – if that is the word – are unlikely to enjoy a tranquil life. Yet harnessing these atypical features can make those possessing them unusually productive. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrial titan, was a classic robber baron: ruthless, impatient, ferociously competitive – but also a dreamer who gave his vast wealth away, saying “he who dies rich dies disgraced”. Carnegie did nothing by half measures and was a bizarre mix of monster and idealist. He had superhuman drive, stating: “The rising man must do something exceptional and beyond the range of his special department. HE MUST ATTRACT ATTENTION.” All his radical behaviours were classic symptoms of a hypomanic.