Effective leaders often are phenomenally energetic, charismatic, decisive and able to lock onto missions like a heat-seeking missile—drawing admiring comrades and superiors in their wake.
Yet sometimes the same traits apply to the manic cycles of a bipolar disorder, with potentially disastrous results.
A submerged genetic predisposition to develop the condition can secretly shadow—and empower—some high-performing individuals to the height of a stellar career, until it comes crashing down. This is part of the message of Bipolar General: My Forever War with Mental Illness, written by retired U.S. Army Major Gen. Gregg F. Martin and published this fall (Naval Institute Press, 288 pages, $27).
Former leader of Army engineer brigade during Iraq invasion reaches out to leaders, and others, to better understand the destructive nature of bipolar disorders, warning flags and how to get help Image Courtesy of Naval Institute Press
After rising through the ranks and routinely passing medical examinations year after year, Martin was diagnosed in 2014 with rare late-onset bipolar disorder with psychotic features. The diagnosis came as Martin’s highly successful career had collapsed into ever wilder manic and depressive swings marked by periods of supreme energy and confidence—then paranoia, depression and increasingly bizarre behavior that frightened his colleagues, threatened the bonds of friends and family, ended his career and nearly took his life.
I have known Martin for more than 20 years, starting in 2003 when as an ENR editor, I embedded with the Army’s 130th Engineer Brigade during the invasion of Iraq. A colonel then who led its construction mission there, Martin was charged with planning and executing the engineer force protection and maneuver support for 100,000 soldiers as they massed in the Kuwaiti desert and drove to Baghdad and beyond.
In 2004, ENR presented Martin with its annual Award of Excellence for his work in Iraq.
During the invasion, Martin had all the energy, charisma, intelligence, decisiveness and laser focus prized in military leaders. He almost never slept, and we talked several nights in camps until near dawn while Martin would treat me to “brain dumps,” as he analyzed what was going on across the entire battle space.
I learned a lot about Martin during those nights, including his backstory of being an unstoppable athlete, a driven soldier and a deeply religious man. After his return from Iraq in 2004, he steadily rose to the rank of two-star general and was appointed president of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., reporting directly to Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Two years later, Dempsey, having been alerted to troubling reports about increasingly erratic behavior, called Martin to the Pentagon to tell him he must resign from the university presidency or be fired. He was subsequently moved to a new assignment at Army Corps of Engineers headquarters for several months before retiring from the service.
Martin was swinging wildly through long cycles of exuberant high-energy and confidence, and then crashing into deep swings of extreme paranoia and soul-crushing despair. His condition, it turned out, was devilishly hard for even accomplished psychiatrists to diagnose, and equally difficult to treat.
"Bipolar General is Martin's account of how, looking back, he suspects he had been on the spectrum of mild sublevel bipolarity since his teen years, and that the disorder helped 'enormously' in his career—until it went out of control."
Bipolar General is Martin’s account of how, looking back, he suspects he has been on the spectrum of mild, sublevel bipolarity since his teen years, and that the disorder helped him “enormously” in his career—until it went out of control. He and his doctors believe that the stress of the 2003 invasion triggered the intensifying gyrations that led to his diagnosis and his descent into what he calls “bipolar hell” during a two-year struggle to find treatment and ways to climb out of it.
The book includes voices of friends, family, physicians and colleagues describing what they saw happening to Martin, and their soul-searching since about what they should have realized.
Martin remains the same high-energy and mission-focused leader, only now that mission is to tell his story, including in a 2021 ENR special report on mental illness, to warn others by reaching out to budding and accomplished leaders in military, construction and other business arenas, as well as their supporters and followers—all to boost understanding of the insidious and destructive nature of bipolar disorders, their warning flags and how to get help for those who need it.
Former Deputy Editor Tom Sawyer resides in New York City and now serves as a special correspondent for ENR.