PsychoSocial Leadership

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

Let’s talk about leadership in the 21st century. And psychopaths.

Today the word “leadership” has the supernatural ability to turn any sentence into a platitude and it’s mere conjuring considerably increases the collective boredom in the universe. In contrast the word “psychopath” summons the image of an unnerving, unblinking individual with a peculiar degustative experience. Surely such an individual cannot be a leader of a successful enterprise – he would very soon run out of employees who are sufficiently not dead.

The sad, empirically tested truth is that psychopaths occupy important leadership positions with alarming frequency. A recent study concludes that the concentration of psychopaths among CEOs is four times higher than their concentration in the general population. What’s more troubling is that we admire and venerate leaders that fit the psychopath profile quite neatly (e.g. Napoleon, Steve Jobs).

This brings the inevitable question: do psychopaths have the qualities that we desire of leaders in the 21st century?

Bad to be Good?

Before dissecting the question an important clarification has to be made. Like poisonous ice cream psychopaths come in different flavours. The famous specimens (the Ted Bundys of the world) usually have an unquenchable taste for violence and trouble controlling their impulses. The second type is the “suited psychopath” or “psychopath lite” who is also confident, cold, charismatic, risk seeking, ruthless, and remorseless but not physically violent. Here we will discuss the second, “tamed” version of psychopath.

I will play devil’s advocate and try to present a solid case for the necessary evil of suited psychopaths. Psychopaths remain unusually calm in dangerous situations where others would boldly flee. In many lines of leadership tough decisions have to be made quickly. Politicians have to decide how to allocate limited resources to alleviate an unending stream of problems. Appropriating funds for agriculture subsidies will take money away from other sectors that are just as needy. The CEO of a company may need to lay off thousands of employees to turn around the fortunes of her company. Making the “feel good” decision today does not always equate to doing the smart thing. The ability to remove irrational emotions can prove to be very beneficial.

Take Napoleon Bonaparte for example. Napoleon did not loose any sleep over executing thousands of war prisoners or invading Russia. After abandoning his army in the Russian winter wastelands he humbly announced in a Parisian newspaper that everything is all right because “the emperor is safe”. Yet he was one of greatest administrative geniuses of all time: the French civil code created under his guidance gave freedom of religion and equal rights to all French citizens. Ranks in his army were allocated according to merit not birth right. The cold and calculating nature of Napoleon allowed him to easily break from tradition and craft very utilitarian laws.

Perhaps to achieve great things we need a terrible person to uncompromisingly orchestrate our work. Many of the greatest or financially successful directors of all time were either lizard people or horrible overseers: Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron, Michael Bay, David Fincher, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone – to name a few. Hitchcock clarified: “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle”. Perhaps even art can be achieved only through adversity. The great Leonardo Da Vinci did not actually complete many planned (and commissioned) works of art. I bet if he had shareholders or a psychopathic boss he would have blessed the world with many more masterpieces.

As a society we seem to be fascinated with leaders who exhibit psychopathic tendencies. Steve Jobs remains the shorthand for effective leadership and yet few would deny that Jobs had a very distant relation with humanity. He regularly denigrated colleagues (sometimes to tears), fired employees on a whim, harassed people interviewing for work, stopped all of Apple’s philanthropic initiatives and short-changed the other Apple co-founder. This behaviour is not exactly unique in Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg ousted the other Facebook co-founder (and friend) Eduardo Severin; Snapchat CEO did the same for another co-founder; the Twitter co-founders repeatedly backstabbed each other. Many aspiring entrepreneurs believe that to be successful you have to be a remorseless egomaniac.

Psychopaths Unmasked

It is tempting to conclude that the leadership style of psychopaths may produce beneficial effects - especially in a highly competitive capitalist system where the bottom line and not benevolence guarantees survival. Complexity in the world is growing and we need leaders who can cut through the tangle of emotions and dilemmas and deliver tangible results.

We could agree but we’re not going to. Let’s demolish some myths. Psychopaths end in leadership positions not because they have superior intrinsic qualities but because they take more risk. For the understandable evolutionary reasons of not being eaten by tigers - normal humans have a tendency to avoid potential pain or loss at great costs. In contrast psychopaths are more motivated by the promise of reward than the threat of pain. They take far more risks and sometimes those risks pay off. Logic dictates than the more risk one takes the higher the reward (for the lucky ones). Many psychopaths end up in the junkyard of failed people but we don’t hear about them.

We hear about the ones in charge of start-ups with vowel-deficient names. We also suffer from the halo effect – which in this case means that we attribute the success of a psychopathic leader to his psychopathic behaviour. We believe that Steve Jobs was a successful leader only because he was a rude and remorseless individual. Psychopath leaders succeed despite not because of their bad and reckless behaviour.

In the future the discipline of leadership has to put down the machete, remove the hockey mask and reveal the face of a caring person. 

Comments

It is nice to read your article again and I think this is a well-presented one. Yet interesting it may sound, I think one fallacy behind your argument is to use one illustrated example (Steve Jobs) to generalise an unmeasurable concept (leadership). Well, I will pass the Napoleon one since it simply doesn't fit your time frame (21st century). Willing to take risks, fearless (and even heartless!) are certainly valuable qualities of leaders but may not perfectly align with psychopath in our common understanding...

I always appreciate good comments!

I’ll try to address your points but please correct me if I have misunderstood something.

Leadership is such a vast topic that it single-handedly feeds and clothes a large part of the consulting and self-help industry. I am not brave enough to make any universal claims about leadership. What I was merely trying to do is to look at a particular subset of inspirational leaders who were exceptionally ruthless individuals, highlight their flaws and ask the question: do we really need this type of leader in the 21st century? That is why I did not limit myself to examples from the 21st century. History books probably contain more psychopaths than the complete works of Stephen King.

As for the definition of psychopath: characteristics shared by psychopaths are a lack of empathy, grandiose sense of self-worth, superficial charm, little to no remorse, and reckless risk-taking. We may occasionally demonstrate these characteristics but some people operate this way 24/7. Risk-taking and fearlessness are all important qualities but in psychopaths they are taken to the extreme and can lead to unethical or illegal actions. Here we have a “win at all costs” mentality rather than fearlessness.

The popular imagination is wrong in assuming that all psychopaths are Hannibal Lecters. Serial killers are just a very small subset and represent an extreme version of psychopathy. The same way heights of 1.90 and 2.20 metres are represented on the spectrum of “tall people” but the latter is a very rare occurrence.

There’s a nice description of Napoleon (by one of his officers) that illustrates my understanding of a psychopathic leader. I am paraphrasing: “Napoleon does not see you as a flesh and blood human being, but as a resource to be deployed in his grand scheme”. In the article I concede that this attitude of treating subordinates as disposable pawns can be beneficial in a “profit over people” capitalist system. But do we really need our future leaders to behave this way?