We look up to leaders as people to trust and admire. Leaders are those who often have the responsibility of guiding us through difficult times. So what would it mean if a leader was a psychopath? It is not an idea that many of us would like to consider, yet research suggests that psychopathic leaders may be more common that we think.  Studies have found psychopathic traits in people holding positions including, supervisor, director and CEO. The implications of psychopathy on a business can be enormous, with issues arising such as bullying, intimidation, moral violations, staff turnover, financial loss, and fraud.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder comprised of a series of interrelated traits that when present together resemble a psychopathic personality.  Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is one of the leading assessment instruments of psychopathy. Hare contends that psychopathy is characterised by several characteristics, including, but not limited to: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulation, callous lack of empathy, poor behavioural controls, impulsivity, irresponsibility, and parasitic actions.

The combination of traits is the cornerstone of psychopathy, with one or two traits considered harmless, yet when all traits are present, there is great reason for concern. In his book the Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success (co-authored with former Special Airforce Service Sergeant Andy McNabb), Dutton explores the idea that psychopathy can be understood like dials on a DJ’s mixing table. On a mixing table, the varied levels of sound mechanics can create vastly different versions of a song. These varied levels can create different personality presentations. For psychopathy to be present, a large percentage of dials need to be turned up or down in a direction that would include, low empathy, high ruthlessness, and high fearlessness. This combination of dial levels can explain different forms of psychopathy. For example, a callous, ruthless, yet impulsive violent criminal (as evidence in the movie Seven Psychopaths) versus the charming, fearless, unemotional stockbroker (Wall Street movie character Gordon Gekko).

For example, psychopathy may be represented by: low empathy, high charm, high ruthlessness, high fearlessness, moderate impulsivity and high confidence.

In the past two decades, we have seen large scale issues in the corporate sector. Some of this includes, fraud, corruption, stock manipulation, bullying and a chauvinistic culture. Total disasters have been evidenced through the decline of Enron and Bernie Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme. Undoubtedly, in issues of corporate disaster, personality traits commonly play a role. While some argue that psychopaths are good for business and able to make tough calls, in practice this is rarely the case. In research conducted by Babiak and colleagues, psychopathic traits were found to have a dire impact on business. In a sample of corporate professionals, psychopathic people performed poorly at management, struggled with teamwork, made bad leaders and had below average performance reviews. The only strength of psychopathic people was their ability to excel at creativity and innovation and be suave communicators.

Psychopaths are driven by power and the desire to dominate others. A leadership role provides this opportunity, able to dictate terms to a wide audience. A psychopathic leader is undoubtedly likely to cause significant chaos and disruption within an organization. This may go unnoticed initially, but overtime psychopathic behavior will be too difficult to contain. The cost of hiring a destructive leader and getting this decision wrong can have enormous implications for a business. It can lead to bullying, intimidation, moral breaches, staff turnover, financial loss, corruption, fraud and even organisational decline. These costs often result in a lot of suffering, impacting those directly working with the person and also those indirectly associated with the business.  It is vital that when selecting leaders that moral and ethical skills along with personal attributes are thoroughly examined. Leaders have the power to make or break businesses, organisations or industries, such a role should demand excellence, not just power and charm.