Thursday, August 16, 2012

FALSE: Bipolars Do Not Make Good Leaders

I recently read a blog post on PsychCentral by Dr. Yanni Malliaris called Bipolar Disorder: A First Rate Madness? His post is in response to a webinar he attended by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi who has researched the positive sides of bipolar disorder in his book A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Link Between Leadership and Mental Illness. In short, Dr. Ghaemi says people with bipolar disorder can make great leaders, especially in times of crisis. He also says depression can make you more realistic and mania makes you more creative. He adds that bipolars tend to have more empathy and are more intuitive than average.

Having not finished his book yet, I can't comment on his whole argument, but it does not seem new to me considering all the work Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison has done (a bipolar herself who has researched much about bipolars in leadership and creativity.) It also does not surprise me given how my bipolar disorder has helped me in my leadership abilities, especially in crisis.

In his blog post, Dr. Malliaris disagrees with Dr. Ghaemi's assertion that people with bipolar make good leaders. In fact he lists three reasons why he believes we are not. Dr. Malliaris says: "People with bipolar disorder cannot be great leaders at times of crisis." He says we actually do worse in crisis and don't handle it well because it can trigger cycling. He also says that when we have the more mild symptoms of depression and mania, that we are not more intuitive and creative, as Dr. Ghaemi suggests. Dr. Malliaris suggests instead of accessing the positive aspects of those times, we should be trying to get rid of the mild symptoms because they can lead to relapse. He also says that being goal-oriented is bad for people with bipolar disorder and that healthy bipolars need to work on being "lesser super-heroes."

I disagree with Dr. Malliaris but of course he is entitled to his opinion and what he sees from how he has helped his own patients. What I was very unhappy with in the blog post though was his condescending tone. He sounds overly critical and his argument is pretty soul-crushing to say that even trying to tap into anything good about our illness will only make us worse. I am sure he has helped many people, but to me is sounds like he still really does not know or understand people with bipolar disorder.

My bipolar disorder does make me a great leader during crisis. Sure it may drain me and I may need to adjust other parts of life to make sure I recharge and do not burn out, but that is part of managing the illness. I don't need to avoid crisis and leadership to manage my illness, actually working as a minister where you do deal with crisis, especially as a hospice chaplain, is extremely rewarding and energy giving to me. It allows me to see the positive aspects of my illness. In fact, the worse my illness is, the better it is for me to work. Work brings me joy and purpose in life and it's actually when I don't have enough work in my life that I get worse.

In my professional life, people have been very kind about the times when I need a bit more support when my illness is bad, which Dr. Malliaris seems to think is a negative thing (point 1 in his post.) However, I don't see it that way. Everyone, mentally ill or not, needs more support at certain times in their life. Community is about learning how to help each other so we can all bring our gifts into the world. 

Also, I am very creative, which is essential in my preaching, leadership, and work with people with dementia and mental illness. I know my creativity is part of the mania of bipolar disorder, but you can figure out how to use your creativity to do something good. And lastly, I don't know how I could ever be a minister if I was not intuitive and didn't have empathy for others.

He does give a quick note that there have been good leaders who also have bipolar, and does mention that we have to work twice as hard to be great leaders and manage the illness at the same time, but his post really seems to discourage people with bipolar from even trying to have leadership positions. That seems extremely sad to me.  

As I have written many times before, you do need to balance things and be aware of your triggers in order to manage your illness. But for Dr. Malliaris to say we really can't be good leaders is unrealistic to me. Managing bipolar disorder is figuring out your balance and learning to tap into what is great about yourself so you can have a happy, caring, and productive life. The idea that we have to get rid of all signs of our illness in order to be well seems wrong to me. I think it just promotes the idea that people with mental illness are scary, bad, and irresponsible. In my opinion, his post just increases the stigma against people with mental illness.

What do you think about Dr. Malliaris' assertion that "people with bipolar disorder can not be leaders in times of crisis?"


Rev. Katie


  1. What I think about Dr. Malliaris's assertion that "people with bipolar disorder cannot be leaders in times of crisis":

    I think this is a ridiculous assertion. Seeing just glimpses of your leadership skills, and those of others I know with mental illnesses, proves to me that Dr. Malliaris' assertion is inaccurate. I think it's also potentially harmful to people with mental illness who should provide leadership, as well as to the people who need their leadership. Everyone should be encouraged to be a super hero. I'm grateful to many super heros who have mental illnesses, including you.

  2. Rev. Katie, thanks for replying to my post. I am trying to explain that I am not an elephant here. I gave my point of view based on the research and literature that I am aware of – not my personal opinions about these matters. Stressful life events make it more difficult for people to be well, mild (depressive) symptoms make people’s lives less happy and less functional and goal related attitudes have been linked to relapse – I wish it was otherwise but this is what the current research has indicated. My personal opinions and experiences are really in agreement with yours believe it or not…