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  • Writer's pictureAmar Mehta

ARTICLE: Psychopathic CEOs - Do The Ruthless Truly Lead Us?

‘Ruthless’, might be the operative word when we individually think of psychopaths. We quite rightly, paint the psychopathic individual as that of a vicious manipulator, devoid of empathy, cold, calculated, a character from a movie. They will smile at you while doing horrible things.


Collectively, the zeitgeist also reserves thoughts that CEOs are more likely to be psychopaths. Those corporate failures, disastrous societal outcomes, ruinous workplace cultures, all the creation of that so described ruthless, psychopathic CEO; not caring as they fire half their employees.


So, is this idea actually true? Are CEO’s mostly psychopaths, or more likely to be psychopaths? ‘More likely’ than what exactly? The vagueness of these claims adds to the mythos a bit, if every negative trait is deemed psychopathic, then we can bucket everything bad that happens as just an example of society allowing psychopaths to lead us. This idea, however, reminds of a famous line by American satirist H.L Mencken, ‘For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear simple, and wrong.' Psychopathy and CEOs stewardship is a bit like that, the idea of CEOs being psychopaths is clear and simple, but it’s ultimately, not that straightforward. Interestingly, this is partly why psychopathy in leadership generally, is a problem. Because we don’t codify and understand the phenomena well enough, we are arguably more exposed to the impact of psychopathy when it manifests from our leaders. A complex personality system deserves a complex answer.


Clinical vs Subclinical Psychopathy


It all starts with how you define psychopathy and of course, this isn’t simple. Reams of books could be written on this subject. The ‘ruthless’ archetype in the corporate context is too nebulous. For the sake of understanding CEOs, I think it’s best to look at two distinctions: clinical and subclinical psychopaths. There is a difference, it turns out, between the cliched clinically labelled psycho who generates images of the cold-blooded shadow that stalks our dreams, and sub-clinical psychopaths that aren’t quite so nightmare inducing. This distinction, especially in the corporate setting is crucial.


Clinical psychopaths appear to look like your classic antagonist, they are described as callous, pathological liars who manipulate freely and bend towards criminality[i]. These traits are present almost all of the time. Interestingly it doesn’t seem that clinical psychopaths fair all that well in the corporate world. In fact, the famous psychologist Professor Scott Lilienfeld, who was an expert on psychopathy, is even cited as saying: ‘the attention given to psychopathy in the workplace by the media and scholars alike has greatly outstripped the scientific evidence’[ii]. Clinical psychopaths actually closely align with a formal diagnosis known as anti-social personality disorder and therefore would appear to struggle to rise through the ranks of a company, partly because they lack social skills and partly because these individuals are riddled with a host of other personality disorders[iii].


Equally, research into clinical psychopaths and other personality traits show negative correlations with key CEO traits including conscientiousness[iv]. This is shorthand for ‘hard to work with and doesn’t work hard’, not exactly CEO material. 


And, a 2019 meta-analysis (where multiple studies are looked at collectively to draw overall results from a wide range of findings) found that psychopathy isn’t that well correlated with executive leadership[v].


This brings us to subclinical psychopaths. These are people who also lie, they are also ruthless and unempathetic. The key difference, however, is the intensity and frequency of these behaviours[vi]. Subclinical types, it seems can moderate their darkness. They either aren’t quite as intense on all their negative traits as a full blown clinical psychopath, or, they are contextually activated, switching on their harmful pathology when the situation requires.


So, how does this information reconcile with the notion that CEOs are widely considered, even by many experts, psychopathic on average, despite research saying otherwise?


It potentially has something to do with how we score psychopathy in research. In the context of a large-scale study, specific clinical assessments are usually done to look for clinical psychopathy in many cases. In other cases, rating systems are used that merely show psychopathic tendencies and worse still these rating scales are self-scored. A high IQ subclinical psychopath will likely work out how to answer self-rating questions and make the relevant adjustments, meaning it’s likely that they don’t show up in scoring as ‘psychopathic’.


This is partly why the distinction between subclinical and clinical psychopathy matters. Clinical psychopaths are somewhat more obvious, their nastiness on display always, but sub clinical ones, well they might not necessarily show up in rating scales and consequently not appear in some research.


Subclinical psychopaths, therefore, represent a potential big problem for the corporate world. These are the types of people that have some pretty significant psychopathy tendencies but can navigate the world effectively because they aren’t completely overburdened by extreme traits. These are the ones who make you think they are pretty normal but are actually turning on and off manipulative switches when it serves them.


The Shadow We All Have


Subclinical psychopathy is then probably better understood as a spectrum of traits coalescing together when the timing is right. In the psychoanalytical world, some might call this the Jungian Shadow, the idea that we all (yes, you the reader too) have dark assets within us somewhere, waiting to be tipped under the right circumstances. In the case of subclinical psychopaths, it looks like the trigger fingers for these deadly switches is a bit more prone to firing than the average person. For those that we see as outwardly clinically psychopathic, it’s likely the finger is halfway down on the trigger already.


Renown research psychologist Kevin Dutton, another expert in psychopathic traits, describes psychopathy as a ‘specific constellation of personality characteristics[vii].’ With subclinical psychopaths, these negative traits are not completely dialled up, but are somewhat in harmony with other traits. This synchronisation can create a person who can comfortably hurt others on their way to success when required. But, these people can move up the ladders without too much challenge because they can also master charm and other ‘positive’ traits needed to swoon decision makers. If they have the latent high IQ and possibly some natural inclination or talent to something relevant to their job, these people can make it to CEO level.


Dutton has probably been misinterpreted somewhat in mainstream thought, his provocative Great British Psychopath Survey in 2011 lists the 10 professions that have the largest percentage of psychopaths[viii]. This generated some intense reaction, and potentially some soul searching for lawyers, surgeons, and CEOs of course (who all make the list). But he’s actually gone to great lengths to highlight psychopathy amongst leaders as being on the aforementioned spectrum of psychopathy, as opposed to being absolute values per se. Again, fitting with the distinction between clinical and subclinical types. He confirms that psychopathic behaviour comes from a mix of intermingling traits where context also plays a role[ix]. So, the higher or lower you are on that spectrum can determine a clinical versus subclinical person, and again, it’s the subclinical types that master the wide range of traits needed to apex a corporate summit. The Hollywood trope of the clinical psychopath is actually unlikely to lead.


CEOs and Psychopathy


This all suggests it’s probably better to view CEOs not quite as vicious clinical psychopaths, but rather as people with complex traits, of which they sometimes index towards psychopathy, likely more often than others.  It looks like CEOs are much more likely to possess subclinical psychopathic traits, that dial up from time to time. They also seem to possess narcissistic traits and Machiavellian traits, which when taken together represent a very ‘effective’ and challenging individual[x] (more on those other traits in another article).


We start to paint a more comprehensive picture now, of individuals who matrix across a range of traits that are beneficial to becoming a leader in general. But there is a difference, between becoming a leader and actually leading. And when psychopathic traits are left unchecked and allowed to flourish, this is where the ‘actually leading’ part becomes a challenge.


Meaning and Defence


So, what does this all mean exactly? Well, it might mean that leaders with psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily all bad. If the full-blown ruthless types aren’t really getting to the top, then we might be getting leaders that have just enough contextually relevant ruthlessness to navigate a hierarchy, something which is naturally challenging for most people. Interestingly, the same 2019 meta-analysis found a bizarre phenomenon, that there was a very slight sweet spot for effective and transformational leadership and psychopathy[xi]. In that, a little bit, but not too much of psychopathy was beneficial to leadership, by those metrics.


So, it’s imperative then, that governance and complementary personality types surround a CEO who might have psychopathic tendencies. It’s a powerful way to apply a vanguard to the subclinical sneak attack. If the subclinical types are good at getting to the top, and some are actually good at leading, we’re better off mitigating their strong proclivity towards the upper echelons of psychopathy. This is your best defence, sometimes accepting reality and navigating for this truth delivers the best outcomes.


The end game reality is that psychopathy in leadership, is a complex beast, old cliches aren’t good enough to categorise what is really going on. The research world itself is split on the truth. For what it’s worth, I think that the way researchers test for psychopathy in the workplace causes some of the divergence of opinions between experts. The research is, admittedly mixed, and for good reason. It’s also why I think (inevitable plug coming) that Persona’s technique for understanding personality through language is so key. You avoid the failures of self-assessed personality reports, and you get a fuller, yet clearer picture of a wide range of tendencies and how they interplay together. This helps us properly see who a person is and lifts the carpet on those who might be hiding some nasty traits.


At Persona, whenever we see certain markers, we have a very strong predictive ability to say, ‘that person can be a risk under these circumstances.’ Our case study on Sam Bankman-Fried is evidence of this point, he’s not a singular trait entity, he has many different markers that when taken together point to a risk. With that said, our general philosophy is that there aren’t any bad personalities (with few exceptions), instead, with the right fit and systems, every stakeholder, the business, the individual and society at large, can all thrive. Remember, that psychopathic surgeon is the person you will want to do your operation when your life is on the line. And surgery is a highly regulated function. Putting a person like that, in a job like that, where there are rules in place, is ideal for all parties.


So, if you suspect a psychopathic leader, it’s important to note, that they are fascinatingly complicated people, who probably aren’t a caricatured antagonist from a Tarantino movie. Instead, they are more likely dynamic, with some bad traits that get switched on here or there and managing for this is the best way for all parties to win. Persona fits in by helping you confirm your suspicions and support your governance, so that your organisation is best placed to navigate the reality of a complex world.


By Amar Mehta, Partner – Science Lead, Persona


References:

[iii] Glenn, A.L., Johnson, A.K. and Raine, A., 2013. Antisocial personality disorder: a current review. Current psychiatry reports15, pp.1-8.

[iv] Paulhus, D.L. and Williams, K.M., 2002. The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), pp.556-563.

[v] Landay, K., Harms, P.D. and Credé, M., 2019. Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of applied psychology104(1), p.183.

[vi] LeBreton, J.M., Binning, J.F. and Adorno, A.J., 2006. Subclinical psychopaths. Comprehensive handbook of personality and psychopathology1, pp.388-411.

[viii] Dutton, K., 2012. The wisdom of psychopaths: Lessons in life from saints, spies and serial killers. Random House.

[x] Paulhus, D.L. and Williams, K.M., 2002. The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), pp.556-563.

[xi] Landay, K., Harms, P.D. and Credé, M., 2019. Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of applied psychology104(1), p.183.

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