Psychopaths in leadership

WHO does this best describe in your life?

“Superficially charming, [they] tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behaviour for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it.

"Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships. [These individuals] routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.”

I was studying what was then referred to as ‘abnormal psychology’ when I first viewed a colleague through this lens. He was a top management person in commercial short-term insurance who was very successful at closing big deals with huge companies and groups. He was worth a fortune to the company he worked for.

But he devastated a colleague’s life, charming her out of her engagement and then dumping her without a single thought. He lied without, it seemed, any concern or awareness that he might be committing a sin of any kind. He walked right over people who had much more admirable characters than him – kind, thoughtful, principled people ate his dust. He pulled in bucks but caused lasting harm that rippled through the company for years. He was, I realised, a psychopath.

The quote above comes from a 2007 Scientific American article by Professor Scott Lilienfeld, who has done a fair bit of research on the subject, and who points out that many, many psychopaths are like my colleague – successful people who are married with kids, in good jobs, admired by colleagues, ‘normal’.

They may be a small, a very small percentage of the population, but they readily rise into leadership positions in business and government. And that’s worrying – the price of their success is often borne by others.

We tend to associate psychopathy with violence – because the ‘unsuccessful’ psychopath tends to end up in prison. (And that’s the cohort of psychopaths readily available to scientists, so they’ve been heavily studied.)

Not all psychopaths are violent, Lilienfeld points out, and not all violent people are psychopaths – in fact, the very criminals we tend to label ‘psychopaths’, such as serial killer ‘Son of Sam’, are often actually psychotic, in a world of their own, hearing voices and the like.

Psychopaths are seldom ‘psychotic’: they are usually very rational and in touch with reality – they know full well that their behaviour is wrong in society’s eyes, they just don’t care – and the successful ones have learnt to put on an act when necessary to skate through awkward moments. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, you can treat psychopathy – if the psychopath wants to be treated.

But why would they? Because it works. Many of the top professions attract more than their fair share of people with one or more psychopathic traits, Professor Lilienfeld and others believe: sales, chief executives, lawyers, chefs (ja, we know all about that, don’t we!), presidents (Lilienfeld and a colleague chased down psychopathic traits in a number of presidents of the United States), surgeons…

The incidence of psychopathy is only about 1% in the general population, but among a sample of people in management, for example, who were tested by researchers for psychopathic traits a few years ago, the incidence was 3%.

“Psychopathy was positively associated with in-house ratings of charisma/presentation style (creativity, good strategic thinking and communication skills) but negatively associated with ratings of responsibility/performance (being a team player, management skills, and overall accomplishments).”

We reward people with certain traits, such as ‘fearless dominance’, easy charm, a sort of boldness and lack of anxiety. They may not be full-blown psychopaths by any measure, but people with traits like these appear on our TV screens all the time, the leaders, the cool dudes, the heroes. It’s not that often that someone who displays empathy, affiliation (sometimes described as ‘tending and friending’) and team-playing takes centre stage as the main man.

And yet leaders who have psychopathic traits can be very bad for companies and communities – as those who have lived and worked under their sway can testify. They may be highly successful in achieving things that look good on the scorecard – wealth, possessions, trophy partners, immense profits on the balance sheet – but as was the case with my ex-colleague, they leave damage in their wake.

A leader who pursues his own satisfaction at the expense of those around him (sound familiar?) can burn through a company/organisation/economy, scoring short-term and selfish rewards but leaving behind so much damage that it can take decades to recover, if at all.

The scorecard of the leader with traits like empathy may be a bit less flashy, but it’s more likely to be win-win and long-term: this leader works with a group of happy people who are better able to manage conflict in the workplace, deal with angry customers, negotiate well with upset communities. Employees work as a team, with mutual goals and the ability to take responsibility for mistakes.

We need to figure out how to start valorising these traits. It would be better for our companies, our economy and our children’s futures if we did.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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