Why Some Psychopaths Are in Leadership Positions
Why Are Some Psychopaths in Leadership positions?
Posted April 30, 2009
It is well observed that psychopaths (a.k.a. sociopaths) are found both in prison and in managerial positions. In "The Sociopath Next Door," Martha Stout analyzed many individuals with psychopathy and most of them were not part of the offender population. I think that leadership researchers have somehow overlooked these types of "leaders" or organizational psychopaths who have inflicted pain to many but succeeded in maintaining their positions (even been promoted).
Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R, 2nd ed.) suggests that psychopathy consists of the following traits:
(1) interpersonal or affective defects (e.g., glibness or superficial charm, grandiose feelings of self-worth, conning or manipulative behavior, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affects, callousness or lack of empathy)
(2) social deviance and antisocial (irresponsibility, parasitic lifestyle, impulsivity, and unstable relationships, criminal versatility).
(3) other attributes.
However, this inventory is apparently intended only for the forensic population and not for psychopaths who know how to elude the criminal justice system.
I have encountered about three or four psychopaths in organizational settings in the past. I observed they were frequently abusive, disregarding the feelings and rights of others; they caused disasters to everything they put their hands on. However, they appeared to never be found responsible for the harms they did. I always wonder how those who are neither emotionally nor socially intelligent (namely, they lack the basic leadership qualifications suggested by some researchers) operate so well, whereas nice people in the same settings are frequently reprimanded or punished.
I have several tentative explanations:
1. Psychopaths know how to ingratiate themselves with people of higher status.
2. They prey on nice victims who they know are unlikely to jeopardize their positions.
3. They know how to take others' achievements as their own credits, and blame their mistakes on others.
4. They are good at using both fear and tear to menace and confuse others.
I truly hope that leadership researchers spend more time examining this type of "leader."
Read my recent post "How managerial psychopaths use emotions to manipulate others."