Is a Touch of Madness a Prerequisite for Great Leaders?

Blog_robotsIn a fascinating new book, author Savvas Papacostas proposes a theory that great leaders exhibit a personality disorder and that a modicum of psychopathology might be a prerequisite to exceptional performance.

Influenced by recent advances in neuroscience and genetics, Madness and Leadership argues that leadership and followership are evolutionary adaptations which developed in order to enhance group (any group) cohesion and thus maximize chances for survival and reproduction, the two basic functions of all living organisms. As such, they are biologically determined and, evidently, heritable, i.e. genetically controlled and were especially important during our primitive existence when environmental hostility, and constant change, was abundant.

The implication that follows is that our personality traits, and among them our tendencies to assume leadership roles, are genetically influenced. This fact is validated by cross cultural studies. Modern neuroscience teaches us that certain epigenetic attributes (acquired structural DNA changes) are also heritable thus providing evidence in support of the influence of experience and other factors beyond genetics. Therefore, it is proposed that our nature (genetics) is expressed via nurture (environment) and not in opposition to it.

It follows that either genetically or epigenetically (or through a combination of these factors) leadership emergence is rooted in our biology; survival of our species would not have been left to chance or to the (whimsical) choices of followers because our newly developed (i.e. a few thousand years old) political practices could not have significantly affected our biology.

That evolution selects those who can lead effectively is clearly demonstrated in the animal kingdom through its pecking orders and hierarchies.

The Alpha male in various animal herds assumes its position by instinct which is biologically determined. In fact, the hierarchy or pecking order is itself biologically determined. This is unchallenged by scientists and nonscientists alike. The issue becomes controversial once we apply it to humans. The book demonstrates that certain personality traits are more conducive to leadership that others. A dependent personality, for example, would be poorly equipped for leadership action whereas an extrovert would be better suited. Among the personality types that confer leadership characteristics on humans, the paranoid type combines attributes necessary for successful leadership. These include extroversion (a paranoid is more up to express himself/declare his beliefs especially if challenged), a characteristic mastery of language (good handle on its constructs, abstractions and nuances, and targeted, straight-to-the-point messages), and a charismatic personality which is conferred (and at times withdrawn) by followers. Moreover, the paranoid possesses skill in verbalizing his constituents’ wishes and goals, as well as potential or real threats; he therefore projects a leadership persona.

Paranoid personality is contrasted to that of a narcissist who is tuned into himself, not the followers, and eventually fails. The psychopath, with his propensity towards lying and deceit, as well as his lack of social concern and conscience, eventually brings destruction to the group he leads. Depending on the culture, the historical circumstances and the issues at hand, a leader-follower dyad emerges. A leader stands out; he is therefore not a ‘typical’ member of his group. The perceived difference he carries is a deviation from the average (or normal or expected) behavior for his group and may be labeled abnormal; in behavioral terms it would be considered pathological.

A degree of paranoid psychopathology is a necessary ingredient
in the makeup of an effective leader.

The question is how much paranoia is necessary? A person with no paranoia would be naïve, indecisive and ineffective. Conversely, an extremely paranoid person, such as one with paranoid schizophrenia would be marginalized by his psychopathology. A mild degree of paranoia, that which is conferred biologically on relatives of people with severe psychotic disorders, enables leaders and their organizations to succeed. Throughout history there are many examples of great individuals who numbered severely psychotic members in their families. Goodness and greatness run in families. Carrying this fact further, the book argues that schizophrenia is the illness that made us human by supplying mildly affected individuals (relatives of schizophrenics) who excel in the arts, politics, religion etc. ‘Normal’ individuals that come from average families are not endowed with leadership attributes but constitute suitable followers.

Another contribution of schizophrenia to the making of our ‘humanness’ and leadership abilities, is language the medium through which we can connect to our past and future and which enhances the development of culture and civilization. In support of the biological and uniquely human characteristic of schizophrenia is the fact that it appears in all societies, past and present at a constant frequency despite its tragic consequences on young individuals; for this reason alone it should have been selected out of our genetic pool, however it is preserved precisely because it promotes and maintains necessary attributes for our survival and culture; not only in terms of enabling the appearance of language (communicative skills in general), but in supplying populations with mildly psychotic (paranoid mostly) people who excel in the arts, science, religion, communicative skills and leadership among others. These individuals combine the gift of language (and persuasion), leadership (through charisma), extroversion, ability to handle change, and paranoia; in other words, these attributes co-occur in certain people and these are the biologically endowed leaders-to-be provided that they find themselves in the right culture and the right conditions. These biologically heritable attributes form the core of leaders’ personality.

Too much paranoia would eventually lead to disaster as the example of Adolf Hitler clearly points out, even though initially, and as far as his nation was concerned, he appeared to be an able leader who promised to see his people through their tribulations. Churchill was also paranoid but not in psychotic proportions, just enough to foresee the dangers that were lurking so that he prepared his people’s defense. Integrity emerges as another key ingredient for successful leadership because it brings about the so-called reparative charismatic leadership, whereas its absence promotes destructive charismatic leadership; Martin Luther King is an example of the former and Jim Jones (or Hitler) of the latter.

Any organization that faces competition or hostility, be it a nation or a commercial company, would benefit from a leader with a mild degree of paranoia.

Boards and stakeholders, in addition to voters, should keep this in mind. Managers are ‘picked’ by boards and stakeholders and are expected to exhibit effective leadership in terms of profits and growth, but not necessarily charismatic human recourse management. On the other hand, situations in which leaders rise spontaneously or by consensus require the presence of biological (either genetically or acquired/coached) attributes that include a charismatic personality (keeping in mind the role of language in manifesting such charisma), integrity which results from a steadfast outlook and adherence to principles (and conferred by paranoia), and extroversion (also enhanced by paranoia). Managerial leaders who possess these attributes will be successful not only in the eyes of their boards but, also, by the judgement of their subordinates. Be that as it may, modern neuroscience teaches us that certain acquired genetic characteristics may, through the process of epigenetics, be heritable as well. In addition, through coaching and guidance, as well as personal experience and circumstance, people may develop the ability to perform leadership acts; the closer the match of their personality to the leadership core characteristics is, the more successful a rookie leader will be.


Papacostas Madness
Madness and Leadership: From Antiquity to the New Common Era

The first Chapter, Introductory Remarks about Leaders and Leadership is available to read for free on Elgaronline

Savvas Papacostas is Senior Consultant Neurologist, The Cyprus Institute of Neurology & Genetics, Cyprus.

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3 Comments on “Is a Touch of Madness a Prerequisite for Great Leaders?”

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