One in 25 business leaders 'could be a psychopath'

As many as one in 25 company bosses could be a psychopath who masks the condition with business speak. So beware talk of 'drilling down'...

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 02 Sep 2011
Of course, depending on one’s own personal experience of managers, one in 25 being a psychopath may seem a surprisingly slender proportion. But the research, to be revealed in full in a BBC Horizon episode on Wednesday, found that only around 1% of the general public could be classed as such – making psychopaths four times more prevalent among business leaders.

We’ve all seen suits portrayed in fiction as unbridled maniacs – whether it’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (pictured) or Kevin Spacey’s character in the recent Horrible Bosses film - even Mr Burns in the Simpsons. Yet according to the research, the truth may be something more subtle. Psychopaths lack moral instincts and are adept at manipulating people by getting inside their skins intellectually - but they have the capacity to identify and outwardly display the qualities that are admired in the corporate world, helping them climb that career ladder quickly.

‘Part of the problem is that the very things we're looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic,’ said Paul Babiak, a New York psychologist behind the study. ‘Their natural tendency is to be charming. Take that charm and couch it in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership.’

Babiak refers to his shock that the individuals concerned were at the top of organisations - vice-presidents, directors and CEOs. Of course it’s too much of a leap to conclude that the bosses of the FTSE-100 are full of blue-sky thinking and paradigm shifts because they’re actually thinking about doing a Hannibal Lector and cooking their staff for dinner. But that’s not to say the picture isn’t worrying: the results revealed that psychopaths were actually bad managers, but they used charm over superiors and subordinates to cover their weaknesses and get ahead.

'The higher the psychopathy, the better they looked,’ says Babiak’s colleague Professor Bob Hare. ‘But if you look at their actual performance and ratings as a team player and productively, it's dismal.’

So the advice on this peaceful Friday afternoon is to be careful: if your boss is too charming, they may well be a crap manager. And if they ask you into their office for some liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti, just check that they’re not expecting you to provide the liver…

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