Psychopaths in the Executive Suite

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Satff

“Not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom.”—Robert D. Hare, Ph.D.

Judging by the large number of “crazy boss” articles in the mainstream business blogosphere: “How to Deal with an Evil Boss,” “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?” “The Horrible Boss Screening Test,” and so forth, one might surmise that “boss” is a synonym for “nut case.”

Does the preponderance of and fascination with these articles mean that there really are thousands of psycho leaders out there? Well, maybe.

In his latest book, The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson investigates what he calls “the madness industry” and, specifically, the world of psychopaths. Within the general population, only 1% are psychopathic, meaning that they are so deficient in empathy and conscience that they pose a serious threat to others. Not surprisingly, among prisoners, the percentage rises to about 25%.

But here’s the really alarming part of the story: the higher up the professional and political ladder you go, the higher the percentage of psychopaths. At the upper levels of business and politics—top corporate officers, for example—nearly 4% score “extremely high” on the official “Psychopath Test.”

Before you label your boss (or congressman) a psychopath, let’s take a look at the criteria for an official diagnosis. Following are the 20 characteristics of a psychopath, taken directly from the Hare PCL-R Checklist. Developed by Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare, the Checklist (included in Ronson’s book) is used by mental health and law enforcement professionals to diagnose psychopathy. Each item is ranked on a three-point (0-2) scale:

  1. Glibness/superficial charm
  2. Grandiose sense of self-worth
  3. Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
  4. Pathological lying
  5. Conning/manipulative
  6. Lack of remorse or guilt
  7. Shallow affect
  8. Callous/lack of empathy
  9. Parasitic lifestyle
  10. Poor behavioral controls
  11. Promiscuous sexual behavior
  12. Early behavioral problems
  13. Lack of realistic long-term goals
  14. Impulsivity
  15. Irresponsibility
  16. Failure to accept responsibility for own actions
  17. Many short-term marital relationships
  18. Juvenile delinquency
  19. Revocation of conditional release
  20. Criminal versatility

If you exhibit 15 of the 20 traits on the list and score at least 29 or 30 out of a possible 40 points, congratulations: you’re a bona fide psychopath. According to Hare, most of us regular folk wouldn’t score more than 3 or 4 points on the test. In fact, if while reading this, you’re worried that you could be a psychopath, relax. The short answer is, if you have to ask, you’re probably not, because, as Ronson writes: “Psychopaths don’t worry about being psychopaths.”

A quick read of Hare’s Checklist reminds me of those old science fiction movies where at the end, after the brilliant evil villain’s attempt at world domination has been quashed, the hero laments, “If only his genius had been used for good, instead of evil.”

One can see how, depending on the circumstance, some psychopathic traits could be very useful to an ambitious executive or politician. Some of the very characteristics that help a leader rise to the top—charm, a strong sense of self-worth, an ongoing need for stimulation—even somewhat negative traits like lack of remorse (no crying over past mistakes), impulsivity (following one’s gut) and a lack of empathy (the ability to do what needs to be done, even when it could cause distress to others) can help one forge a successful career. It’s only when those traits are accompanied by the really nasty ones: parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, and so on, that a person crosses over to the dark side.

To see the parallels between highly successful, powerful individuals and the criminally insane, we have only to recall recent headlines. Without naming names, we have witnessed scandals involving high-ranking political figures guilty of: poor behavioral controls, promiscuous sexual behavior, irresponsibility, impulsivity (and later, indulging in pathological lying to cover it up). We’ve also witnessed all too many business leaders who have been conning and manipulative, callous, lacked empathy (for shareholders and the general public), were irresponsible, failed to accept responsibility for their actions, and showed a pronounced lack of remorse for their transgressions. Are they psychopaths? For the most part, technically, probably not. But I’m betting they would score higher on Hare’s Checklist than most of us.

Dr. Hare is so convinced of the widespread negative influence wielded by corporate psychopaths that he coauthored a book titled Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (Reagan Books, 2006) that examines why psychopaths thrive in certain corporate environments.

In a 2010 scholarly article he laments the dearth of information about the world of corporate psychopaths: “Other than a few small-sample studies, anecdotes, and speculations, we know little about ‘corporate psychopathy’ and its implications, in large part because of the difficulty in obtaining the active cooperation of business organizations and their personnel for research purposes. At the same time, there is considerable public and media interest in learning more about the types of person who violate their positions of influence and trust, defraud customers, investors, friends, and family, successfully elude regulators, and appear indifferent to the financial chaos and personal suffering they create.”

To find out more about corporate psychopaths, Dr. Hare, along with Paul Babiak, Ph.D., and Craig S. Neumann, Ph.D., launched a 2010 study of 203 corporate professionals who were selected by their companies to participate in management development programs. They found that “the very skills that make a psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.”

Most of the study participants who demonstrated high psychopathy scores were high-ranking executives. Their companies had invited them to participate in management development programs despite negative performance reviews and other 360 degree data.

Hare believes it is easy to mistake classic psychopathic traits for admirable leadership qualities. He writes: “Charm and grandiosity can be mistaken for self confidence or a charismatic leadership style; likewise, good presentation, communications, and impression management skills reinforce the same picture. The psychopath’s ability to manipulate can look like good influence and persuasion skills, the mark of an effective leader. Lack of realistic life goals, while clearly a negative trait which often leads the psychopath toward a downward spiraling personal life, when couched in the appropriate business language, can be misinterpreted as strategic thinking or ‘visioning,’ a rare and highly valued executive talent.”

Ronson, who worked with Dr. Hare while researching The Psychopath Test, writes, “In my research, I remembered various psychologists telling me that psychopaths ruled the world. They were the CEOs and politicians and religious leaders who created the mess the world is in.”

While neither Ronson nor Hare is suggesting that most business leaders are psychopaths, the data do suggest that the traits that lead some people to kill without remorse are the same traits that lead others to win without remorse. For example, if a situation warranted drastic measures, a psychopathic leader could confidently make a tough, unpopular decision, such as closing a plant or firing thousands of people, without remorse.

So, what about your boss? How would he or she score on the Psychopath Test? For that matter, how would you score? Before you become an amateur psychologist, remember: there’s a 99% chance that neither of you qualify. (Make that 96% if you both reside on the highest rungs of the corporate ladder). However, forewarned is forearmed. By becoming familiar with the traits that make a psychopath, you’ll be better able to recognize one if he or she takes up residence in your organization’s executive suite.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson, Riverhead Books, 2011.

Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk, by Paul Babiak, Ph.D., Craig S. Neumann, Ph.D., and Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Volume 28, issue 2, 2010 (Wiley Online Library).

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.