Your CEO May Be Insane. And That’s Okay.

In creating characters for my novels, many of whom occupy the business world, I try to use traits that make the people colorful and interesting.  And in doing that, I drawn upon what I see of real people in the real world.  I usually don’t have to look very hard to find corporate leaders who are interesting, which brings us to the question of what makes them so.  When I worked in the corporate world, I observed that many top executives did not seem like terribly sensible, well-balanced individuals.  Moreover, it was my highly unscientific observation that the higher up in the food chain, the more likely I was to observe unbalanced characteristics.  In fact, some of them seemed a little crazy.  It turns out I was probably right.


In a fascinating book called A First-Rate Madness, psychologist Nassir Ghaemi tackles the problem of mental illness and its relation to political leadership, asserting that mental illness can be a significant advantage to a political leader, particularly in times of crisis. Citing examples of leaders who have suffered from depression (Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Churchill) or hyperthymia (Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy), Ghaemi shows that traits such as empathy, realism, drive, and energy–all indispensable in times of crisis–can all result from mental illness.  This thesis is consistent with the truism that by definition, all progress is made by unreasonable people.


Ghaemi’s thesis, while unevenly documented, rings true to me, and applies to the corporate as well as political realm.  In the business world, the most colorful, mercurial personalities often belong to turnaround specialists, the executives brought in during times of crisis.  Organizations with serious problems need leaders with outsized–and not necessarily balanced–personalities who push the envelope of change and yes, push their employees.  Such personalities are seldom tolerated in companies that are humming along successfully, when there is no need to rock the boat.


In this passage from my second book, Poised to Kill, I observed:

“I suppose people from outside the corporate world would have trouble understanding how a man like Vince Nash—a moral midget, a social barbarian—treating his fellow human beings like so much garbage—could be chosen to lead a publicly-held corporation employing thousands of people.  But that was the American way.  As long as these cretins made money we loved them.  We gave them affectionate nicknames like “Chainsaw Al” and “Neutron Jack.”  Their books were bestsellers.  They were rock stars.

As long as they made money.”


This brings us to Ghaemi’s corollary: mental health can be an actual disadvantage in a crisis, where an “ordinary” temperament fails to meet the demands of extraordinary times.  I find this point harder to accept.  The idea that the most emotionally mature, balanced, sane people are liabilities in times of greatest need is not only discouraging from an ethical standpoint, but troubling when we consider the future.  In business, the idea of a “normal” environment is fast disappearing.  Perpetual crisis has arrived, virtually everywhere.  Any situation that even hints at stability is seen as in immediate need of “disruption.”  Corporations are even employing Chief Disruption Officers to make sure no one gets too comfortable.

This trend may not bode well for a nurturing work environment, but it’s a plus for thriller authors.  Likable, sane, balanced people often don’t make for a great story.  Greedy, narcissistic, obsessed people do, and they seem likely to do well in the years ahead.