Are Psychopaths Better Leaders?

October 31, 2016 — 3 Comments

We’ve all probably had a boss or two in our lives who we’d swear were psychopaths… you know the one who had an ability to make people cry on demand, never noticed your heroic effort and sacrificed puppies every Friday at lunch. Good news, you’re not crazy if you thought that because a recent study of 261 senior professionals in the United States found that 21% had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits – roughly the same percentage as the prison population. The normal rate among Americans is around 1%.

Psychopaths suffer from antisocial personality disorder which usually means they are unable to empathize, treat others with very little regard, have no conscience and show no guilt or remorse for their behavior. Psychologists believe they’re born this way, different than sociopaths who are are usually formed that way by nurture (parents / caregivers).

Another distinction is sociopaths are impulsively dangerous, rather than cold and calculated like a psychopath. If that’s not scary enough, psychologists say psychopaths are often able to fake feelings like empathy and remorse to gain trust and build relationships that are beneficial to them.

I think we can all agree from the onset that none of us would enjoy working for a person with these scary traits. You couldn’t trust them which would render your loyalty and commitment worthless… unless you’re scared of them because they’re psychopaths, then you might stick around!

Time for your annual performance review!!!

Time for your annual performance review!!!

But what if you’re a CEO who’s a psychopath only interested in results and you want to find some leaders who can drive the business the same way? Would you consider psychopaths better leaders? Let’s unpeel this onion a bit and pretend I’m talking to you as a psychopath CEO.

Psychopaths probably aren’t very valuable to your company unless they have some other traits you can harness and help mold. If I could pick any trait, I’d select narcissism which psychology defines as “extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration“. Okay, this is something I can work with. Now all we need to do drive the business is help build this person’s dream of the position they can achieve at our company and the admiration and fame that will come with it.

It doesn’t matter if the person has any passion for what your company does, all that matters is they can clearly see a path to dominance. Of course, you’ll need to play some games of your own to make sure this person isn’t able to unseat you, but you’re a psychopath CEO, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Isn’t this coming along well??!

The last thing you need to ensure is your psycho-minion is smart enough to at least fake some emotional intelligence. They can’t make it obvious they have very little regard for others or they won’t be successful. The good news is if you find a narcissistic leader who’s smart, they’ll know an important element of their success is shepherding and building those under them – at least enough that it helps the leader be more successful.

Congratulations psychopath CEO, your company is now built to at least hit next quarter’s numbers! However, anything beyond that is foggy because everyone else will probably quit.

So far, it sounds pretty clear we wouldn’t want to work for a psychopath. But is there more to the story?

Psychopath or a good business operator?

There’s some very tough middle ground senior leaders have to play that could often be viewed as either a psychopathic trait or as being a good business operator. I had to play some of these roles at my last job when times got hard and budgets got cut. This makes the job of a leader very difficult because you have to worry about the long term health of the company sometimes more than the individuals who work for it.

If you’re not able to be a “tough” boss who can make the hard decisions, you may not be successful and your company may fail. I had a very hard time making staffing cuts because I was very concerned about the impact to the individuals… but does that make me a bad business operator and does that make the person who made the cuts a psychopath? It’s obviously not black or white, so many of the judgments can’t be made without a broader understanding of the situation… which is hard to entertain if you’re the one who is getting let go!

What about psychopath visionaries?

Visionaries are the people who ultimately change the world. Sometimes they do it through building consensus and slowly moving the group along, but most of the time they’re single-minded in their efforts. It could be built out of their own goals of admiration and power, or it could be propelled by something they believe in so strongly that no person will be able to stand in their way.

Either way, they might be viewed as psychopaths because they’re more concerned with their vision than with anyone or anything else. They’re not hesitant to insult or fire people aren’t valuable to their cause. One often disputed psychopath is Steve Jobs. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, there was “Good Steve” and a “Bad Steve” and if you’ve read any of his biographies or watched the movies, you know he had some psychopathic traits. But he also changed the world.

In the end…

Even if 21% of senior leaders are psychopaths, it means that 79% aren’t. However, there are probably times that every senior leader was accused of being a psychopath due to the decisions they were forced to make. If I’m unwilling to make those tough decisions because I’m too nice (this is all theoretical) then does that mean I wouldn’t make it at the top of the company? Maybe that’s why there is a higher concentration of “psychopathic traits” at the top… because the people unwilling to make these difficult decisions quit before then or make a decision to stay at a lower level or as an “individual contributor” so they wouldn’t be put in a position where they’d have to look like a psychopath!

If it seems like I’ve gone in circles with this post, it’s because I have. When I first started writing it, I definitely had it slanted that there’s a clear “psychopath leader” trait and many senior leaders have the same temperament at the prison population… but as I started thinking through my own experiences and examples, I’ve definitely backtracked. It’s not easy being a senior leader and if you want to be the one in those positions of power and influence where you can drive real change, you need to make tough decisions that might make you look like a psychopath sometimes.

Studies like the one linked, just like most statistics, can be slanted in any direction or be made to tell any story one prefers. I’m assuming the interviews of the senior leaders were completed with the goal of finding at least one of those “psychopathic traits” – which is probably pretty easy to do with someone who’s been in that position long enough and has been forced to make the painful decisions to increase company longevity.

I think that’s where you sort out the real psychopaths from the others. Recognize if they’re only out for their own personal gain and power – and avoid them. Find someone you trust and can learn from and who you know has your back, but then understand we’re in a very challenging and quickly changing environment where tough decisions are sometimes required. I’ve always tried to find those people I respect and can learn from, and then follow them in my career until the time is right to move on.

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3 responses to Are Psychopaths Better Leaders?

  1. Another interesting perspective Dan….and quite difficult to respond to! I’ve worked for some exceptional leaders in my career so far: leaders who had to make tough and sometimes heartbreaking decisions. The saving grace and why I’d work for them in a heartbeat again comes down to two words: humanity and trust. Get to know your leaders on more than a superficial level and their true light shines through. These differentiators drive true commitment, rather than resigned compliance. The leaders with less desirable tendencies might be smart, driven and potentially company focused, but their selfish attributes and personal self promotion above all else soon becomes apparent.
    Whilst it can be painful to work with and for these individuals, it certainly helps you appreciate and identify those leadership behavioural styles that stimulate, rather than stymie your enthusiasm and progress….then it’s down to you to find that perfect match!
    I’m currently working with a senior leader who is probably one of the most intelligent and capable visionaries I’ve had the pleasure to engage with. However, business/social skills are way behind the curve! He’s achieved a senior role at a relatively young age on ability, rather than a more holistic balance. That said, match the directness and intensity, add humanity / personality and the same is mirrored back in kind….but it takes a personal investment to achieve this and I for one think it’s worth it!

    • Rob – as always, thanks for providing the great wisdom. I definitely see what you’re saying as “faked” emotions (which can be an indicator of a psychopath!!) can be accepted at first glance, but as you learn more about the situation and experience the person’s true nature, then it becomes clear. My question – can you identify this beforehand, or does it take getting “bit” to learn?

      • I don’t think there is one answer to your question: it depends on the individual you are engaging with! Some hide their true self pretty well and even organise their family and non-work aspects of their life around creating this more holistic mask, whereas others don’t make this investment.
        I’ve noted Psychopathic leaders often display other traits that might indicate some undiagnosed conditions, e.g. Autistic or bipolar tendencies and I often wonder whether there are underlying genetics or behaviours (along with emotional immaturity) that influence how they operate and engage with others.
        I like to think I have a pretty good people radar, yet I know I have been bitten…heck, mauled when giving people the benefit of the doubt…At least it has ensured this Old Dog doesn’t become complacent 😉.

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