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Do leaders have psychopathic traits?

Rhian Morgan

With society, and the boardroom, becoming more cut-throat, Rhian Morgan looks at how you can weed out the psychopaths at interview – and how to adapt certain traits to get ahead of the rest, without literally stabbing someone in the back

When you think of a psychopath, chances are you will conjure up the Hollywood version – Hannibal Lecter in a mask, perhaps. But with more psychopaths in the boardroom than in Broadmoor, it’s likely that you’ll be sat right next to one in your next management meeting.

The boardroom psychopath is ostensibly oozing superficial charm, is a whizz with numbers, and ruthlessly restructures the company on a regular basis. And a female psychopath is usually better than a male at insinuating herself smoothly into the company by faking sincerity.

Figures vary but for every 100 workers, there could be one female psychopath and up to three men in the office. And in the boardroom, that figure rises to 4% for both sexes. So, if you work for a large company, and don’t think any of your colleagues have hot-footed it out of hell, then the chances are that the psycho is likely to be you.

The Me Generation of psychopaths

 Joking aside, the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale states that CEO tops the league, with lawyers, salespeople, surgeons, journalists, police officers, chefs, and, even the clergy and civil servants making the top ten. And if you’re a Millennial, then welcome to the Me Generation. You’re 40% more like to be a psychopath than someone who graduated in the 70s, according to research.

Leading criminal psychologist Bob Hare sums it up when he says: “In general, society is becoming more psychopathic.” He puts this down to increased violent and also sexualised behaviour in everything from music videos to the net, violent video games, and the anonymity of trolling.

You only have to look at the rise in popularity of professional hatemongers, like Jeremy Clarkson and Katie Hopkins, who came second in Celebrity Big Brother after doing well in The Apprentice, to see that obnoxious behaviour is increasingly being rewarded with success, fame, and money. Turn on to any channel and you’re likely to see people killing (and eating) live animals for entertainment, and reality shows, where promiscuity and bitching is the norm, and are seen as a valid vehicle for the talentless to earn a quick buck and gain instant popularity.

An authority on psychopaths, Prof Kevin Dutton, adds: “The Millennium has ushered in a wave of corporate criminality like no other. Investment scams, conflicts of interest, lapses of judgement, and those evergreen entrepreneurial party tricks of good old fraud and embezzlement are now utterly unprecedented. “Guerrilla accounting means Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange expect continued gains as the speed and complexity of business have increased exponentially.”

Prof Clive Boddy states, in the journal of Business Ethics, that psychopaths take advantage of the chaotic nature of modern corporations, including rapid change, constant renewal, and high turnover. They are then able to infiltrate and “influence the moral climate of the whole organisation” and wield considerable power.  Psychopaths are to blame for the global recession as their “single-minded pursuit of their own enrichment and self-aggrandisement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.”

The opposite of a Robin Hood mentality is dominating the press and politics. It has become increasingly acceptable to savage the most disadvantaged in society, such as the poor, the mentally vulnerable, and the physically incapacitated, while rewarding the rich money men who created the recession, letting them escape from tax and rewarding them with huge bonuses. It’s set to continue as the harshest global benefits cuts are predicted in history.

Business success and psychopathic traits

However, in order to cope with the harsh realities, there is a sweet spot of psychopathic traits where people are most conducive to business success.
Although the female psychopaths of this world tend to have higher testosterone levels, for example, the successful ones are those who can fine tune aspects of their personality. For instance, in order to be a great leader, it is necessary to turn down your ruthlessness, to mere assertiveness. Research shows that acting too ‘male’ in the workplace can backfire for many women, meaning they are less likely to be promoted.

Successful leaders who score high in psychopathy know how to make the most of their innate charm, focus, mental toughness and acuity, fearlessness, and mindfulness, say experts like Prof Dutton. These types of women naturally do well on Wall Street and in the financial world. For those who can’t tone down too much of a good thing, a prison cell beckons, as three-quarters of female serial killers are motivated by profit, far more than the male equivalent, according to the Kelleher Typography.

For those who score low in psychopathy, there can be a tendency to become too dominated by fear of the past or future, which means you can develop anxiety and depression that will lead you to procrastinate. Instead, develop an SOS mentality, and become more mindful of living in the moment, so you have the psychological skills to strive, overcome, and succeed.

But how can you avoid working with the worst kind of psychopaths? After all, they are notoriously hard to spot at interview. Bob Hare and Paul Babiak might have the solution. They have created the B-Scan, or Business Scan, a self-report questionnaire of how many psychos are in the corporate setting. It evaluates personal, and emotional styles, organisational effectiveness, and social responsibility. When the B-Scan is complete, it can be used by firms to root out psychopathic applicants with low integrity.

Prof Hare comments: “You’ll find [psychopaths] in any organisation where your position and status afford you power and control over others, and the chance of material gain.” While Dr Babiak adds: “The major problem is that psychopaths get into organisations very well as they interview well and can convince people they are right for the job. But, as soon as the person is hired, all sorts of problems start.”

Traits to look out for include “insincerity, arrogance, manipulative behaviour, and lack of guilt or remorse”. However, if you’re the one heading for interview or promotion, it’s worth borrowing some of the female psychopath’s better traits. In the short term, they give the impression of a cool, confident, and charismatic individual who’s fun to be with and going places. By visualising yourself as embodying these characteristics, it can help you get into the right mindset. But maybe don’t indulge in a Hannibal or Bates Motel Netflix marathon the day before interview, or you may end up setting the sociopath switch just a little too high.


  • Gordon Mackay

    The first sentence: "With society, and the boardroom, becoming more cut-throat," seems like a rather sweeping and contentious statement to me. A visit to quality bookshops on or off-line soon reveals there are more books on Emotionally Intelligent Leadership and the like than ever before. Organisations like the ILM and APM are all advocating treating people more humanely so, though there is a battle: let's not concede too easily.

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