Is There a Psychopathic Leader in the Corner Office?


Is it possible you work for someone with psychopathic traits? Someone who seemed like great leadership material at one time, but whom you’ve come to know as false and manipulative? Perhaps they’re less than honest and transparent,  always self-promotional and closely guarded? They may show personality traits similar to a psychopathic leader.

In the work I do coaching leaders, I’ve heard some tales of outrageous leadership behaviors by bosses with a sense of entitlement and little sense of empathy for others. I often wonder how in the world did some of these people ever get promoted to the positions they hold? Eventually bad bosses usually get caught out, but they leave a trail of unhappy employees and destructive results.

Maybe one of the reasons we see so many leaders derail and go off the ethical cliffs is our emphasis on rapid innovation and the need for speed in today’s corporations. We have become willing to hire and promote leaders who get things done at any cost as long as they’re charismatic and confident. Or, maybe we’re letting too many borderline psychopaths get promoted into leadership positions.

As authors Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare state, “Egocentricity, callousness, and insensitivity suddenly become acceptable trade-offs in order to get the talents and skills needed to survive in an accelerated, dispassionate business world.” (Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work, 2009.)

An example comes to mind, but maybe you can think of others… The executives at Enron who manipulated false profit reports, committed accounting fraud and caused bankruptcy and the loss of millions in revenues for employees and customers alike. I think more than one of their top executives qualified as psychopathic, from what I’m reading.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why the first decade of this 21st century has had so many cases of fraud and failure on a corporate level. The psychopaths are getting hired and rewarded for their risky behaviors.

People with psychopathic traits are known for ignoring rules and regulations. When coupled with high intelligence and a talent for conning and manipulation, the new flexible organization is a great opportunity for gaining personal rewards at the expense of others.

In today’s lean and mean companies, individuals who can shake trees and rattle cages are preferred over “organizational drones” who follow the rule books. A little fudge here, an exaggeration there, whatever it takes to get people fired up into action and producing results is preferred. We’ve all seen it happen: flexibility and stretching the truth is favored even when it’s applied to data and “hard facts.”

At least that’s how I explain what I see as an increase in “flexible corporate ethics” and along with it the promoting of borderline psychopathic executives. Even when bending the rules becomes obvious, it’s hard to raise the red flag — and worse when no one at the top responds to it.

I’d love to hear your experiences. Have you worked with people that seemed to have psychopathic traits? Also, what did you do about it? I don’t think it’s ever easy to handle people like this.

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