Are You a “Soft Bipolar” Leader?

By Robert Holmes

Oct 30

Just exactly what makes an leader tick? Why are entrepreneurs more likely to take risk and therefore more likely to gain (or lose) it all? It is an underlying disposition, a mental frame of reference or a personality trait? Dr. Michael A. Freeman, a psychiatrist and venture capitalist says that many entrepreneurs and business leaders have a creative edge that is a kind of mania. He calls them “soft bipolar,” (the technical term is hypomania). This keeps them out of the definition for bipolar, but it puts them on the spectrum of the same kinds of issues.

Leaders can be “up”, but not so far that they hear voices and disconnect with reality. Dr. Freeman explains: “Hypomania can give entrepreneurs significant advantages… elevated mood, expansive creativity, and an increased ability to tolerate risk. Soft bipolar entrepreneurs can be visionary, highly self confident, persuasive, energized, and boundlessly enthusiastic about the companies they are building.” Think of hypomania as a kind of “success gene.” (1)

I reckon a guy like Tim Ferriss might carry that gene. He’s a cross between Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn) and a Balinese monk. Tim made a name for himself in 2007 with “The 4 Hour Work Week.” Now he’s an angel investor. I love the book and the ideas it contained about working smarter not harder. Tim breaks the rules where ever possible and seems to distort gravity itself. I want to make brain babies with his ideas. But I also have this niggling feeling that it wasn’t the whole story.

The shadow of a hypomanic person

Bipolar disorder (of the go-to-a-mental-hospital kind) has two states. Mania is one of them and depression is the other. Entrepreneur’s hypomania also comes with its twin: periods of depression. Every amazing high, breakthrough, opportunity-of-a-lifetime has an equivalent torturous toil, devastating night of anguish and inward terror to match it!

You experience the heady world of striving and success, the thrill of the chase and kill followed by the adrenalin headache and the come down of cleaning up the mess of broken bones. You raise capital only to have it consumed by a hundred small cuts from expenses you could never have predicted. Wins cannot be put down to anything you did, and your best strategy fails.

Four years after the book, Tim wrote a very honest piece hinting at the darker side, calling himself “neurotic, manic depressive, and crazy.” The blog includes tales of depression, sleeping in 3 hours past the alarm, overdosing on 10 cups of coffee a day and abusing pornography. During these times Tim is afraid to be alone and cries uncontrollably watching movies. This may not be see-a-psychologist stuff, but it does raise self management issues.

After a smashing week of amazing successes, my business partner Jaemin was in a funk and couldn’t get out. He had a bad attitude about everything, ate chips and used chocolate to solve his problems. After lunchtime he just wanted to go back to bed. For him, some state management techniques were incredibly helpful. He lifted his mood and the next day he was almost normal. That’s why every entrepreneur needs a coach, mentor or accountability partner. (2)

Bryan Neuberg, an executive coach who cut his teeth coaching at Google, gives this helpful advice, “I have helped many on the soft bipolar spectrum. For those who are mostly hypomanic, they need support in checking the “irrational exuberance” that can put their companies at risk… they also need… to challenge the feasibility of implementing some of their wild ideas.”

Along with risk managing the highs, Neuberg says that during the down periods they must, “train themselves to follow exercise regimens, spend time with loved ones, and learn how to manage feelings of self doubt and negative thinking.” (3)

Turn the volume up

As I mentioned at the start hypomania, or soft bipolar is on the spectrum. It is not nearly as debilitating as clinical bipolar I. The cycles are not as ferocious, the highs not as high, the lows not as low. Ferriss believes that many highly productive individuals are actually clinically bipolar. He has a lot of case studies to back up his theory too. Many ultra-successful entrepreneurs have been manic-depressive. Francis Ford Coppola (screen writer and director) has it. Craig Venter (biochemist and geneticist) displays signs of it. Ted Turner (founder of CNN) definitely had it. So does entrepreneur Renee Rivkin, whose insider trading behaviour ultimately landed him in jail.

It’s not just risky behaviour on the highs, but depressive episodes and mental struggles during the lows that we must watch for. The terrible and debilitating episodes of depression can lead ultimately to suicide. Think of the sudden and tragic deaths of Ilya Zhitomirskiy (Diaspora), Eric Salvatierra (PayPal), Aaron Swartz (Reddit), Kari Kairamo (Nokia), Glenn Mueller (Venture capitalist) and Jody Sherman (EcoMom).

What to do, what to do…

Given the stigma associated with mental health, and the concerns entrepreneurs have with managing public perception, I think Tim Ferriss has been very bold and inspiring by admitting his Achilles Heal. Whether or not he suffers bipolar, he has allowed us to glimpse into the reality of his up and down world. And there’s the rub – admitting we have a problem. I for one would put my hand up and say when I first discovered that entrepreneurs experienced this roller coaster, this hypomania I was greatly relieved, because that meant I was normal – they were just like me.

Being in business is one of the most rewarding, and yet at the same time excruciating things a person can do besides having a family. I think we would all do well following Bryan’s advice: make sure your company is not at risk by having checks and balances in place during your “irrational exuberance” periods. When you’re feeling low follow your state management program.

Footnotes

1) Psychologist John Gartner explores this further in his book “The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America.”

2) Fellow 4-hour lifestyler Cameron Herald wrote a compelling article called “Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You” which lays out the cycle and gives helpful coaching tips about what entrepreneurs can do at each phase.

3) Neurberg, B. “Why many entrepreneurs are privately suffering

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About the Author

Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and performance enhancement with a passion for neurology, leadership and the psychology of potential. He believes it is important to bring hard science to coaching, and that coaching practices be evidence based and research backed. Robert is a founding partner at Frazer, Holmes Coaching and current Director of Brand and Marketing for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA). Robert is a professionally certified coach (PCC) with over 20 years of business experience and an ICF Accredited Mentor Coach. He is an Associate at the National Speaker's Association, a member of the Coaching Psychology interest group at the APS, a certified Action Learning Coach, a Member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.