One of the darkest moments in history provides a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of one of the world’s most celebrated leaders –Winston Churchill
Most of us recall Churchill as the Prime Minister of England during World War II. He was, unabashedly, the man who wielded Britain’s military might against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, and ultimately saved his nation from the encroaching clutches of Nazism.
What most historians fail to acknowledge, however, is the incontrovertible secret weapon that helped Churchill ensure passage into the annals of leadership greatness. His secret weapon of warfare was not his mortal intellect, though it was formidable; nor his instinctive military strategies and acumen for launching counterattacks on Hitler’s vast army; nor his oratory prowess that inspired a nation to collectively take up arms to defeat the Nazi regime.
At the root of Churchill’s psyche was something beyond mortal fortitude. It was that thing — the fleeting, evasive, at times sinister, destructive and omnipotent gift — that continues even now to mystify historians.
What was it?
It was his chronic, unbridled bouts of manic depression, more commonly known as bipolar disorder.
Before you dismiss this dubious assertion, let me paint a clearer picture of this enigmatic man and what modern science and psychology have only recently discovered about the blessing – and curse – of what has emerged as one of the most invasive and ubiquitous pandemics of our time.
It is well-chronicled in numerous biopics and biographies that Churchill’s mood swings were legendary. As documented by one of the nation’s top psychologists and researchers on the topic of leadership, throughout his life Churchill was so paralyzed by despair that he spent time in bed, had little energy, few interests, lost his appetite, couldn’t concentrate. He was minimally functional – and this didn’t just happen once or twice in the 1930s, but also in the 1920s and 1910s and earlier. These darker periods would last a few months, and then he’d come out of it and be his normal self.
In an early letter to his wife Clementine in 1911, after hearing a friend’s wife had received some help for depression from a German doctor, he wrote:
I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colors come back into the picture.
But normal for Churchill was in a sense also rather abnormal: when he wasn’t severely depressed and low in energy and lying in bed, Churchill had very high energy levels. He wouldn’t go to sleep until two or three in the morning, instead staying up and dictating his dozens of books. He would talk incessantly in a tantivy of whirling thoughts. So much so that the then US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, once said of him: “He has a thousand ideas a day, four of which are good.” These are manic symptoms, part of the disease of manic depression (which includes but is not exactly the same thing as today’s “bipolar” illness terminology).
After some time, Churchill would go back into months of not talking, not having any ideas, not having any energy. And then he’d be back up again. His mood swings were more than likely related to why Churchill drank so heavily.
To whom fate was entrusted
This was the life of the man to whom the fate of Britain was being entrusted. Britain couldn’t afford Churchill to become depressed and despairing and non-functional for months during the war. Thankfully, there was another man standing behind Churchill: his physician Lord Moran. Moran prescribed amphetamines for Churchill in later years for his depressive episodes and a barbiturate from 1940 to help him sleep.
Despite all this, historians haven’t wanted to admit it: how could a great man have severe depression (much less manic depression, which is likely more correct)? Even the great writer William Manchester in his posthumous 2012 biography, The Last Lion, rejected the evidence of Churchill’s psychiatric disease.
Deify and deny: great men cannot be ill, certainly not mentally ill.
But what if they’re not only ill; what if they’re great, not in spite of manic depression but because of it?
My recent research has suggested that in times of crisis, it is sometimes those who are seen as quirky, odd or with a mental disorder that show the greatest leadership. Mania enhances creativity and resilience to trauma, while depression increases realism and empathy. Churchill was a creative, resilient and realistic leader, and empathic to Jews at a time of common British anti-Semitism.*
Part 2 of this series, “Ruthless Predator,” will focus on the legions of today’s great leaders in sports, entertainment affected by the blessing and curse of mental illness, one in particular who’s had perhaps the greatest impact on the broadcast and media industry in our generation — Ted Turner.
Written by Phil Herzog, Managing Partner of SmoothStone Partners – a sports and entertainment marketing consultancy.