Cool under pressure. Lack of empathy. Utilitarianism instincts. A new book examines the link between psychopaths and corporate leaders.
Some psychopaths are good guys, it can’t be denied. Like the dental surgeon who yanked out one of my molars recently. He kept wrestling it out of my bleeding gums despite the tears rolling down my face. I needed that guy to keep going when no one else could have. I couldn’t expect him to be the one giving me a pat and a cup of tea afterwards.
Corporate leaders are often accused of being psychopaths. This is in part because a 2005 study by two researchers at the University of Surrey who compared the psychopathic profiles of business managers with psychiatric patients and hospitalised criminals. “Their analysis revealed that a number of psychopathic attributes were actually more common in business leaders than in so-called ‘disturbed’ criminals ..,” wrote author Kevin Dutton, in his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths.
The difference between business leaders and the criminals or insane, the study found, was the level of “antisocial” feelings.
Dutton’s provocatively-titled book posits the theory that we can learn lessons by studying the qualities exhibited by psychopaths and he crosses the world talking to researchers and experts, as well as with psychopathic criminals, to investigate his proposition.
What is clear at the end of Dutton’s exploration is that psychopathy occupies a kind of sliding scale. In some circumstances, we all see values in these attributes; but once the tendency tips past a certain point, the individual is lost in a moral vacuum, without concern for their victims. It is dangerous territory to explore.
No matter the discomfort of the analogy: leaders are already closer in behaviour to psychopaths than most. When asked to complete a self-score psychopathy scale, CEOs topped the list of those on the plus-side. They were followed by lawyers, television and radio presenters, salespeople, surgeons, journalists, police officers, clerics, chefs and civil servants. Here’s just a snapshot of what leaders can learn from psychopaths.
It’s hard to make a psychopath sweat. The higher the stakes, the bigger the risk, the more they love the game. In a study when a mix of participants gambled away $20 they were given, the psychopaths won easily. In the game, losing cost a dollar, but winning reaped $2.50. Normal people became increasingly cautious as they suffered loss. The psychopaths thrived on the risk.
This attribute is in part because psychopaths feel little or no empathy for other human beings. They tend to sacrifice the few for the many — a familiar theme for those who have been through redundancy rounds.
Cool under pressure and a lack of empathy are useful traits in moderation: you don’t want a surgeon worrying how you feel as he or she takes a scalpel to your brain. The best leaders, like psychopaths, actually calm down when thrown into a highly stressful situation.
When applied to psychopaths, charisma is a superficial thing — the process of winning our admiration is a game for them that has no more meaning than brushing their teeth.
In these days of authentic leadership, leaders might want to at least study what makes psychopaths so irresistible. After all, military leaders need to be able to persuade their troops to walk into the face of death.
Persuading followers to do what must be done requires charm, an ability to understand what motivates and drives individuals. Dutton describes a psychopathic school friend who tricked him out of school assignment, but who also persuaded Dutton’s mother to let the pair see in the New Year. “‘Mrs Dutton,’ Johnny said with icy reason. ‘You don’t want us running around at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning while you’re lying in bed with a headache, do you?’
By the way, if you think your leader might be a real psychopath, most people report feeling extreme discomfort talking one on one with a true psychopath. Although they are brilliant at covering their complete lack of feeling, most normal people (more women than men) get an icy chill — feelings of disgust or repulsion, or that “they might be lunch”.
The capacity to think so far ahead, to see opportunity that is invisible to others, to understand the secret desires of others (a market) sounds as much like a description of Steve Jobs as it does of the Yorkshire Ripper.
The best leaders are way ahead, not only able to see the best path, but to communicate their vision with clarity and passion, enlist the support of everyone around them, stay focused on the goal and thrive on making all the tough decisions needed to get there — just like Hannibal Lecter.
Why is the world inhabited by psychopaths? Dutton suggests that these attributes have been preserved through the evolutionary sieve. They are great survivors, the superlative hunters of the cave days, the corporate elite of today. And, since most psychopaths are men, they also have a breeding advantage: sleeping with many women, but not sticking around to be called “daddy”, as Dutton explains.
As far away from our ideals as we think the psychopath is, Dutton points out that they share many traits with the most spiritual among us (and also have traits at the opposite end of the spectrum, of course). Stoicism, mindfulness, mental toughness, openness to experience, utilitarianism, focus, altered states of consciousness, energy, creativity, and non-attachment.