Madness and Brilliance

I have long admired William Tecumseh Sherman, an American Civil War general who had a rough start but ended up as one of the great leaders of one of the most terrible wars.  It was with some curiosity that I read about the relationship between mental illness and leadership and a recent book by Nassir Ghaemi on the topic in Maclean’s magazine.  “Old Cump” was briefly on leave at the start of the Civil War due to what has been described as a nervous breakdown.

If you read his autobiography, you get a sense of the view he had of the world and the future of the war.  Depending on your perspective, he was quite realistic or really pessimistic!  Perhaps both!  In light of Prof. Ghaemi’s book, though, you understand how a leader with that world view might be better in that sort of situation.  I have not read the book, and some have found it to be weak both in hypothesis and support.  But it is not hard to understand the appeal of the connection between mental illness and certain types of leaders or decision-making.

The march to the sea was an amazing leap of faith.  He’d seen Ulysses Grant successfully use the tactic – leave supply wagons and train behind and live off the land – to get around the east side of Vicksburg to successfully put it under siege.  It must have been a remarkable decision to take Grant’s previous example and decide to take troops further and with more total devastation than had perhaps ever been tried before.

One of my favorite quotes of Sherman underscores his loyalty to Grant:

General Grant is a great general. I know him well. He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk;and now, sir, we stand by each other always.

Grant was another amazing leader, although not crazy or mentally ill.  Just brilliant.  One of my favorite sayings came after Sherman and Grant had suffered a devastating attack on the first day at Shiloh.  In fact, it had gone so badly, one might expect the Union army to have withdrawn.  But that wasn’t Grant’s way – he talks of his own tenacity in his autobiography – and turned his head towards the next day:

Sherman:  We’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?

Grant.  Yes.  Lick ’em tomorrow though.

It is a great example for leaders.  Keep your mind focused on the challenge at hand, accept the reality of the situation, and make plans to improve it.