Why Good Bosses are Just a Bit Psychopathic

The concept of the psychopath in the boardroom gained support from research suggesting that leaders become leaders through their ruthlessness, fearlessness, and ability to dominate. People high in psychopathy are known for their tendency to push anyone aside in their need to become all-powerful. What separates CEOs or politicians from the criminal, according to this view, is their ability to avoid engaging in overt antisocial behavior so that they don’t actually get arrested. They lack empathy, are willing to exert brute force to get their way, and have no regrets over actions they’ve taken that have hurt others. Perhaps you or your partner has a boss who has a strong mean streak and who has no qualms about trying to make others appear weak and inferior. It seems that all this person cares about is stepping over everyone else and doesn’t mind leaving a trail of hurt and angry supervisees in his or her wake.

According to University of Alabama’s Karen Landay and colleagues (2018), in an article fittingly titled “Shall We Serve the Dark Lords?” the claims that corporate leaders lack a moral compass, as reflected in psychopathic traits, is overblown. The story that has developed around this notion is an appealing one, giving it traction in the popular and professional literature regarding the “successful psychopath.” However, as Landay et al. believe, the story leaves out important details.

The important distinction that Landay and her collaborators believe is ignored is between leadership emergence and leadership effectiveness. People high in psychopathy may wish to become great leaders due to their desire to dominate others, but they may not be all that good should they actually make it to the top. Think about that mean boss. Do you really want to work for such a person? Wouldn’t you try to the best of your ability to sabotage his or her goals? Aren’t you always spending every available coffee and lunch break hatching plots with your coworkers as you fantasize various whistleblower scenarios? How, then, could such an individual be an effective leader? The only way such individuals could get to the top would be if they can either fool their own bosses into promoting them or perhaps, more diabolically, use tactics such as blackmail involving threats of ugly lawsuits should they be let go.

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Landay et al. note that there are several distinctions necessary to make that previous studies have not sufficiently taken into account. First is that idea the psychopathy is not a unitary construct. Although some measures of psychopathy use a single factor score, other researchers advocate looking at psychopathy as a multifaceted quality consisting of interpersonal dominance (boldness), impulsivity (disinhibition), and meanness (lack of empathy). Another related part of the psychopathic equation is manipulativeness, allowing such individuals to appear charming and friendly as they step all over everyone else to make their way up the ladder. Furthermore, leadership emergence is not all that easy to define. Individuals may be promoted to positions of increasing prominence, but only be around for two or three years in those jobs. Perhaps their employers became fed up with them and they left before they could be fired. Leadership effectiveness is not all that clearly defined either. Are you an effective leader because other people like you and want to work for you, or because you have a firm view of the organization’s bottom line? You may behave horribly to everyone in, for example, your volunteer group, but somehow your group manages to secure the most donations for the cause.

Apart from methodological and definitional issues, Landay and her colleagues suggest that gender might play a role in the psychopathy-leadership relationship. After all, it is well known not only that women are less represented in top echelon positions, but that they are rated as less effective in the qualities of dominance needed to make it to those higher levels of prominence. Women cannot show the same “dark” behaviors as men and expect others to see them as good leaders.

After scouring the potential literature for published and unpublished studies that met their inclusion criteria, Landay and her fellow researchers were able to obtain 46 unique samples with data on leader emergence, informal leadership, effectiveness, and finally “transformational” leadership, or the type of leadership that inspires followers based on high ethical standards. The research team was interested in testing not only the psychopathy-leadership relationship for men and women but also to test the possibility that a moderate amount of psychopathy would be the most predictive of leadership qualities.

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Based on this large repository of empirical data, the research team discerned only a weak positive relationship between psychopathic traits and leadership emergence, and a weak negative link between psychopathy and effectiveness. As you might expect, individuals high in psychopathy also had low scores on measures of transformational leadership. Interestingly, when subordinates rated their bosses, the psychopathy-transformational leadership relationship was lower than when people rated their own psychopathy. However, when gender was added to the mix, the picture shifted considerably. Psychopathic women did not emerge as leaders, but psychopathic men did. Similarly, in ratings of effectiveness, women high in psychopathy were negatively rated but men were positively related. Thus, the overall psychopathy-leadership relationship seemed to depend heavily on the gender of the leader. Finally, some degree of psychopathy seemed to benefit leaders in all aspects of leadership, including transformational.

The authors concluded that, when put under the scrutiny of an empirical test made across multiple investigations, there is substance to the fear that people with psychopathic tendencies are indeed more likely to emerge as leaders. The effect, though small, is “potentially important in practice” (p. 8). However, more is not necessarily better, as it was only when individuals had moderate levels of psychopathic traits that they were more likely to become leaders, more effective, and even transformational. The story is different for women, however, for whom psychopathy seems to backfire as a personality trait to bring into the workplace. At home, women may express their psychopathic traits not as antisocial behavior but as emotional outbursts, perhaps due to feeling thwarted at work.

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To sum up, there’s no direct one-to-one relationship between psychopathy and the attainment of leadership in an individual’s organization. Women have a tougher time than men if they show these qualities, and even highly psychopathic men are likely to experience pushback when they try to claw their way to the top. Being a little bit nice may actually go a long way in progressing to the positions in life you most desire.