Do Psychopaths Make Good Leaders & CEOs?

Psychopath CEO

We have gone into the traits of psychopaths in a lot of detail on this site, and some people may notice that these traits might seem to serve them well in some walks of life. Do psychopaths make good CEOs and leaders for example?

The short answer to this is that full blown psychopaths do not make good CEOs or leaders, certainly not in the long term. They may be able to deliver short term success through deceit or manipulation, but sooner or later the flaws inherent and firmly set in their character, such as dishonesy, lack of impulse control and poor planning, will come back to bite them and undermine any false success they appear to have created.

The issue is somewhat complicated by the fact that a study into this very issue by psychopathy expert Robert Hare appeared to show the opposite – that psychopathic characters do appear to be more prevalent in the higher levels of the corporate world.

However, the devil is in the detail here. The study found that the actual percentage of psychopaths in high level executive positions was about the same as the general population. What differed was that the percentage of people scoring very highly on Hare’s own Psychopathy Checklist but without passing the threshold required to be diagnosed as psychopathic was quite high in the sample.

In other words, they displayed significant psychopathic traits but could not be classed as full blown psychopathic by Hare’s own criteria. Thus it appears that rather than psychopaths making good CEOs, having psychopathic traits appears to make one more effective in higher positions in business, and there is a subtle difference there.

Psychopaths Can Do A Dirty Job

One context in which psychopaths can be seen to be “effective” is in being able to do the dirty and dastardly things in high level business which others with a conscience may struggle to do. When a company needs gutting and thousands of workers need laying off, then a psychopathic CEO or department manager will be able to do this without any qualms or moral hangups. They simply don’t care about others.

Similarly they can knock a department into shape that isn’t performing by taking a ruthless “hatchet man” approach that comes naturally to them anyway. They can use abrasiveness and bullying tactics to get others to comply with demands, and also hire and fire people at will with no concern for damage to families and livelihoods.

Remember a psychopath has no conscience or empathy and and so can do these things without suffering any emotional consequences as normal people would. Thus some companies may see these characters as useful, in that they can do the dirty jobs so no one else has to.

A psychopath also has a natural tendency for power and control, which can be useful for a CEO, especially of a large company. A psychopathic CEO may keep an obsessive watch over all his departments and underlings to make sure everything is just so, creating a high pressure, tense environment. There will be a ruthless drive for profits and targets and they will be on the phone to anyone who doesn’t meet them demanding answers.


How Psychopaths Get From A to B

There is no doubt that in some senses a psychopathic CEO could be argued to do a very good job in getting a company from A to B. The problem with them though is how they get from A to B, and with this you will often find the psychopath has mistreated and ruthlessly trampled over others along the way to reach their goals. People are viewed as objects to be used and manipulated and not as actual people.

The psychopath just wants to get from A to B in the quickest way possible; they have no sense of conscience, empathy or guilt and so don’t care how they get there. They are happy to lie, cheat, break rules, backstab and push others out along the way. It doesn’t matter to them.

It is this lack of an ethical filter that can can leads to problems with psychopaths in positions of power in the workplace. They can do things which either lead the company into legal or corruption issues down the lines, or else come back to bite the company in terms of the way they have treated others backfiring.

Psychologist Paul Babiak discussing the problems psychopaths create in the workplace.

The Problems With Psychopaths in the Workplace

The basic problem with having psychopaths as CEOs is that they are fundamentally toxic people who thrive on negativity and division rather than positivity and harmony. These are not good traits for long term success in any environment. Sooner or later the psychopathic traits of the CEO will turn from a “positive” into a negative.

What we mean by this is that psychopaths exhibit a predictable pattern of behaviors that never leave them throughout their lives. We list here some of the ones which will at some point likely negatively impact upon their ability to be an effective CEO, matching them up with a potential negative consequences these toxic traits may lead to at some point down the line.

Problems With Psychopathic Traits in CEOs

Psychopathic TraitWay This May Backfire and Damage a Company Long Term
A glib superficiality or charm but no substance underneath.Customers and clients will soon realize this and their trust in the CEO and the company will decline. No repeat business.
Inherent dishonesty and deceptiveness. Constant tendency to lieSee above point, plus possible legal and regulatory issues down the line.
No real understanding of right and wrong. Will treat those alongside and under him poorly.May do unethical and stupid things which land the company in trouble.
Poor Impulse ControlWill take risks and waste company resources without thinking through consequences. Inappropriate sexual or professional conduct.
ManipulativeAgain comes under dishonesty. Word will spread and reputation of the company will suffer.
Poor ability to plan long term or see the bigger picture.Not good for long term corporate strategy. Can blag or bullshit to get through today but not make serious plans for several years from now.
A tendency to undermine and force out truly talented workers they see as a threat - a trait driven by their envy and insecurity.Pushes high quality workers out the company, declining the overall quality of the workforce.

Looking at the issue this way you can actually see that psychopaths are not good people to have as CEOs, since they often have many of the traits which will serve to hurt a company in the long term, not help it. Psychopaths are very short termist characters and tend to do whatever is necessary to get through today. They couldn’t care less about what consequences this may lead to months or years down the line.

Psychologist Paul Babiak also describes well the problem of psychopaths undermining a company from within; see the 25 minute mark of the embedded video for a good description of how this process can work.

The psychopath often mimics and hides within groups of high performing, high potential employees, since they can see these people have the traits they don’t. They realize that these more successful workers will attract attention and resources and so feed off this success like a parasite.

They clone and mimic these high performers, sharing in the success, but then over time start to take these high performers out, since he sees them as a threat. He will use a combination of backbiting, scheming, politics, painting them in a negative light to upper management and “set ups” to either make the high performers leave or get them fired.

The psychopath slowly takes out his competition this way, in doing so causing the company to lose it’s best workers. Remember the psychopath is fundamentally an egotistical, self serving person and does what is best for themself, not the company. The overall quality of the workforce will decline if the psychopath is allowed to continue scheming.

Through this way they may make it high up into the company, perhaps even to CEO, but they often have little or no real, authentic talent themselves. They only know how to clone or mimic genuine high performers, but not how to be one themselves. Once they have lost this resource of talent to parasitically feed off, then what?

This is the question corporations and large companies must ask when considering whether they want these types as CEOs. They may appear to do a good job on the surface but digging a little deeper, psychopaths only get to where they are through negative and toxic behaviors, not positive ones.

Once they get to a position where they aren’t really answerable to any people anymore, then the character defects of the psychopath may be more exposed. The company may start to decline as corruption, legal battles and staff dissatisfaction and turnover start to hit home.

The psychopath will often rule with an iron fist and feed a psychopathic culture down to the lower layers and the environment of the company will likely deteriorate over time, attracting more toxic characters and less genuine, high quality people. This is often how psychopathic companies form, where a psychopath makes it to the top and then negatively remoulds the company in his image.

Paychopathic Traits vs Full Blown Psychopaths

We should again emphasize the subtle point here about the difference between having some psychopathic traits and being diagnosed as a full blown psychopath. The Hare study we cited above found that those with significant psychopathic traits, but not clear cut psychopaths, did well in high level executive environments.

It may well be true that these people who have some of the traits of psychopathy, but not enough to qualify them as full psychopaths, will be very useful to large companies and corporations. They can display the psychopathic traits when needed but also have enough human traits to mean they cannot be called psychopaths.

They have the traits necessary to move them up the corporate ladder quickly and do things less psychopathic people would not be so comfortable doing. Whether this is a good thing is up to each person to decide and is down to individual values. Such people are still likely mistreating others along the way, even if not quite as badly as a full blown psychopath.

What does a person want out of life? Do they just want to get to the top, or do they care about how they get to the top? Do they want to die rich or die happy (happy with the way they have behaved and treated others in life)? Are the two things mutually exclusive? Can you get to the top being an honest, decent person?

These are big ticket questions and opinion will always be divided here. One thing that seems self evident is that full blown psychopathic CEOs cannot be good for an organization long term, since their character traits are fundamentally negative and toxic, not positive. Whilst these traits may deliver some kind of apparent short term benefit, over time they will start to undermine and eat away at the culture and skills base of the company, whether it wants to admit this or not.

The more grey area issue of having workers with psychopathic traits but who are not psychopaths move up the ladder very quickly is a more tricky one. These people may be more beneficial as a CEO longer term, though there are still ethical considerations with the way anyone with psychopathic traits behaves and treats others to reach their goals.

See our other articles on psychopaths in the workplace. See also the three other studies on the effects of corporate psychopathy involving professors Hare and Babiak.

Corporate Psychopathy Study 1 (2010)

Corporate Psychopathy Study 2 (2012)

Corporate Psychopathy Study 3 (2013)

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