Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Looking for mad leaders for hard times?

Winston Churchill said he never found anyone interesting who’d lived through a happy childhood. Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts University Medical Center gets in closer, assembling an entire book on the proposition that depression and mania make leaders more realistic and empathic, and mania makes them more creative and resilient.
“A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness” has touched a nerve. It’s been reviewed widely and he’s appeared on the Stephen Colbert Show. His series of short sketches of everyone from Churchill and Martin Luther King to Lincoln and Tony Blair, however, hasn’t caused much stir. The way his thesis is glibly applied to the present is the sensation.
“‘For abnormal challenges,’ Ghaemi insists, ‘abnormal leaders are needed.’ The text makes only one reference to the current president, warning us that while “‘no drama’ Obama might be considered the epitome of mental health,’ we must remember that ‘psychological moderation’ is not the prescription for greatness.”
As one reviewer put it: Is Barack Obama too sane to lead the United States in times of crisis? Are stable leaders inappropriate for shaky time?
As a child of the Cold-War and Mutually Assured Destruction, there’s something ridiculously naive about the question. The government of the US today, like the Government of Great Britain in the summer of 1940, is not a start-up company that can be run by an egomaniac or a poem born after days of anguish alone in a room.  The White House’s ability to make decisions, to make a positive difference—and to not do terrible harm—rests on the reliable application of disciplined intelligence.  You can’t skip sanity to be a great President.
Churchill and Lincoln’s “black dogs” encumbered their lives but didn’t cloud either their values or their clear heads as decision makers. Churchill’s values and experience, and a great writer’s ability to see what he saw drove his early radical assessment of Hitler. His depressions and drinking in the Thirties only helped keep him out of power, unable to avoid a catastrophe.
When finally in office, Churchill didn’t decide to make a dear friend and pen pal out of President Roosevelt because he thought they would be ideal soul mates. To do his job—to survive Hitler—he had to. In the spring of 2008, Barack Obama didn’t huddle with bankers and big businesses and double the US deficit because he was a confused Uncle Tom, meekly following instructions George Bush had left on his desk. Obama saw it as his responsibility to avert another Great Depression.
Certainly, it would have been more interesting for everyone if Obama had waited for the economy to collapse and used that time writing fire side chats to radicalize America later. But, do we want leaders to lead us into “abnormal” times so they can be a little more “abnormal” as well?

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