What CEOs and psychopaths have in common

Reckless risk-taking, charisma and non-conformity are characteristics of both bosses and psychopaths.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 12 Jul 2016

Over 15 years have passed since the release of American Psycho, which highlighted the concerning connection between success in the corporate world - particularly finance - and psychopathic traits.

Though slightly exaggerated, the movie illustrated the well-known link between antisocial behavioural tendencies and positive career outcomes in business. Thus in a famous lecture, psychologist Robert Hare argued that 'not all psychopaths are in prison - some are in the boardroom'.

Most corporate leaders are not psychopathic; and most psychopaths are not corporate leaders. However, milder manifestations of psychopathy are no doubt conducive of success in many business environments. Indeed, there are three areas of overlap between psychopathic behaviours and CEOs.

Fearlessness and reckless risk-taking: these qualities are glorified in the Western world, perhaps because they signal physical strength and power. It is likely that our intuitive notion of good leadership has been shaped by evolution. Our ancestors preferred to be led by tough and brave leaders - modern psychopaths resemble just that.

Charisma: when you ask anybody to name the key attributes of leadership, charisma will probably make their list. In reality, charisma helps people emerge as leaders but it does little for their effectiveness. Both CEOs and psychopaths are often charming and charismatic.

Problems with authority: extreme non-conformity harms your employment prospects. Ironically, though, it can also turn you into an attractive leader. Many mega-successful entrepreneurs had trouble in their earlier careers. Many of the most successful start-ups were an act of revenge by people who were too disobedient and rebellious to hold jobs in other people's firms. There is no shortage of founding CEOs who may be regarded as highly functioning psychopaths: they were more or less unemployable but managed to get their act together and launch enterprises (so they can have a job).

Although psychopathy can be found in females, males are much more likely to be psychopathic than women. This is perhaps the final similarity we ought to consider: if the proportion of female CEOs increases, the link between psychopathy and leadership will probably decrease. Needless to say, if companies understand the dangers of promoting people with a psychopathic profile into leadership positions, they will probably end up with fewer men (and more women) in charge.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @drtcp

Photo credit: jpellgen/Flickr


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