What is the connection between depression and leadership?

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Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Despite the debilitating problems that mentally stressed and depressed people face, there is growing evidence that those persons may possess qualities that make them better leaders in times of crisis than "normal" people.

Nassir Ghaemi, a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, explains why in his book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, which examines the mental health of famous leaders including Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

Especially in times of war or social oppression, "depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic," whereas nondepressed people, while they make great leaders in normal times, may be held back in times of crisis by what psychologists call "positive illusion," a mildly high self-regard or a "slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them."

Ghaemi suggests that this connection can be explained by the depressive realism hypothesis. This theory argues that "[depressed people] are depressed because they see reality more clearly than other people do." This may explain why one study showed that persons with a history of depressive symptoms usually score higher on tests for standard measures of empathy than a nondepressed cohort of college students. "This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past," Ghaemi writes. "Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others' point of view."

For example, social leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who both are known for their overwhelming empathy in leadership, also battled depression. King had made at least two suicide attempts in his youth. As he became a social icon in the 1950s and ‘60s, his colleagues noticed periods of underlying psychological distress that Ghaemi later described to be “clinical depression.”

However, King’s depression may have been the key to his development of a radically empathetic strategy to achieving social change. He often taught his followers to approach their oppressors as psychiatrists approach their patients. They were suffering from racism, which King described as a psychiatric disease that should be treated using nonviolent methods--similar to the treatment tactics of a psychiatrist. This is one of the many examples of a leader using empathy in creative ways that can drive a population through troubled waters.
This content originally appeared on doctoroz.com

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.