Research Studies

Mental Illness & Leadership

When we picture a person in a position of leadership, certain traits usually come to mind: emotional stability, social boldness, self-assurance, i.e., someone who is thick-skinned.  

It’s no surprise that in a society where mental illness is seen as a personal weakness, and where weaknesses are concealed at all costs, that we dismiss the idea that individuals suffering from mental illness can achieve leadership roles.

At times, mental illness can make getting out of bed and into the office a tremendous task on it’s own, but that’s not to say that having a mental illness doesn’t make you “leadership material”.

Articles in the Wall Street Journal, CBC News, and Forbes remind us of prominent leaders who battled with mental illness, including:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Martin Luther King Jr
  • Winston Churchill
  • Mahatma Gandhi

The authors describe how the qualities resulting from their mental illness actually helped them to be effective leaders. For example, “manic depressive people are often more creative, more empathetic and realistic than the more mentally healthy (…) these people tend to succeed in times of crisis” (The Associated Press, August, 2016), or “mildly depressed people (…) see the world more clearly” as depression “has been shown to encourage traits of realism and empathy” (Ghaemi, 2011). 

Realism and a heightened sensitivity to others’ feelings are traits that can help any boss at work be more effective at their role. Though their qualities helped them through high-pressure times, that is not to say that having a mental illness makes things easier. These great individuals had their downfalls too, just like everyone will. What this does tell us is that mental illness doesn’t have to stop anyone from having goals of being a leader at work, school, or elsewhere. 

References

The Associated Press. (2016). Some great leaders had mental illness and it may have helped. CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/mental-illness-leaders-1.3717216

Ghaemi, N. (2011). Depression in command. The Wall Street Journal. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111904800304576474451102761640

Allen, F. E. (2011). Does being seriously depressed make you a better leader? Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2011/07/31/does-being-seriously-depressed-make-you-a-better-leader/#3445714e2625

Photo Credit: http://www.everydayinterviewtips.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/72205739-lculig-leadership-achievement.jpg

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