Published: 24-03-2014 08:30 | Updated: 24-03-2014 09:00

Familial link between leadership and bipolar disorder

Persons with bipolar disorder, previously referred to as manic depressive illness, are more likely than others to possess superior leadership skills at an early age. The same is true for their siblings, and later in life siblings are overrepresented in professional leadership roles, especially in politics. This has been shown in a new doctoral thesis from Karolinska Institutet.

It is an age-old notion that prominent politicians, artists and writers more often than others are affected by mental illness. The association was described as early as by Aristotle, and several historical leaders, among them Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte, are suggested to have suffered bipolar disorder. But from a scientific viewpoint, it has not been sufficiently investigated.

“This is a subject that interests me. My idea is that there may be certain traits that could give rise to leadership qualities and creativity on the one hand, but bipolar disorder on the other. If this were true, it is possible that such traits would be present also in the siblings of these persons, and we wanted to test this theory empirically,” says Simon Kyaga, senior consultant in psychiatry, who recently defended his doctoral thesis at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

Extensive register studies

In his thesis, he presents several extensive register studies. One of these studies includes nearly 70,000 individuals with bipolar disorder and all of their siblings. Each person has been matched to up to ten control subjects in the general population. By cross-checking data on leadership abilities from the Swedish military service records with professional information from other public records, a very large puzzle was pieced together. This in turn showed that persons with bipolar disorder, who suffered from no other afflictions such as anxiety or substance abuse, were more likely than others to possess superior leadership skills.

The same was true for their siblings, but to a somewhat lesser degree. However, later in life, the persons with bipolar disorder were not found in professional leadership roles. Their siblings, on the other hand, were; they were overrepresented in leadership positions, and particularly in political decision-making roles. For these roles, siblings of persons with bipolar disorder, who had no related afflictions, were around 85 per cent more common compared with the control group.

“These results can be read as support of a potential in persons with bipolar disorder without related afflictions that should be safeguarded and utilised. If the person develops bipolar disorder, this leadership potential seems to be left untapped,” says Simon Kyaga.

In an earlier study, which is also part of the thesis, he has shown that bipolar disorder is more common in people with artistic or scientific professions, such as dancers, researchers, photographers and writers. Their relatives would also be in creative professions to a higher degree than others.

This research has been funded by the Thuring foundation, the Mental Health Fund, the Centre for Psychiatric Research in Stockholm, Schering-Plough, the Swedish Medical Association and the Professor Bror Gadelius Memorial Fund. Supervising the thesis project were Professor Mikael Landén, Professor Paul Lichtenstein and Professor Yudi Pawitan, all working at Karolinska Institutet. The thesis was defended on 21 March 2014.

Simon Kyaga at TEDx

Doctoral thesis

Creativity and Psychopathology
Simon Kyaga
Karolinska Institutet (2014), ISBN 978-91-7549-451-7