Having written about the importance of humility in good leadership last month, a colleague directed me to a book by Jon Ronson called The Psychopath Test, which she assured me I’d find fascinating – and indeed I did.
Ronson is a brilliant, entertaining and thoughtful commentator on society’s foibles and he had seized on the notion of better understanding the psychopathic personality, to find out what it tells us about ourselves.
Most interestingly, Ronson talked of the work of Bob Hare who has spent a lifetime studying psychopaths and devising the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, otherwise known as the PCL-R, widely recognised as a useful tool.
The checklist consists of a set of symptoms which are manifest in psychopaths against which potential candidates are measured and scored diagnostically. The notion is that there is a spectrum of response in all of us against these values and everyone will manifest some of these symptoms: it is the degree of manifestation which becomes then crucial.
Please note however that the checklist comes with a useful warning not to attempt some DIY checking, a temptation somewhat difficult to suppress, it must be said.
Even with the warning, readers will want to know what these symptoms are and be busy checking yourself and your friends and enemies:
glib and superficial charm
grandiose (exaggeratedly high) estimation of self
need for stimulation
cunning and manipulativeness
lack of remorse or guilt
shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
callousness and lack of empathy
poor behavioral controls
early behavior problems
lack of realistic long-term goals
failure to accept responsibility for own actions
many short-term marital relationships
revocation of conditional release
But the checklist is not really the point of this column, the more important point today is that there is evidence to indicate that a higher proportion of business leaders demonstrate psychopathic symptoms.
As Hare noted in 2002, ‘‘not all psychopaths are in prison. Some are in the boardroom.’’
In their study of 203 managers in seven US companies, Babiak, Neumann and Hare used interviews and data from 360 degree reviews to score the managers against the PCL-R.
The authors found that “high psychopathy total scores were associated with perceptions of good communication skills, strategic thinking, and creative/innovative ability and, at the same time, with poor management style, failure to act as a team player, and poor performance appraisals”.
High scoring managers had often attained very senior positions in the companies studied.
This article should be seen as required reading by HR personnel as it contains some insightful gems, such as: “it is easy to mistake psychopathic traits for specific leadership traits. For example, charm and grandiosity can be mistaken for self-confidence or a charismatic leadership style”.
In contrast to the work of Babiak, Neumann and Hare, Keith Dutton sets out to show what we can learn from psychopaths that will build our personal leadership capacities, arguing that the “typical traits of a psychopath are ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness and action … in sum, the very skills that make the psychopath so unpleasant (and sometimes abusive) in society can facilitate a career in business even in the face of negative performance ratings.”
Too few of these psychopathic traits will result in weak and ineffectual leadership. You can actually take Dutton’s psychopathy challenge here: http://www.kevindutton.co.uk/test/the-psychopath-challenge/
(I’m under the average score apparently which is somewhat worrying!)
This is a complex subject and one that has merited huge amount of research.
I hope that this column might be a prompt to think about psychopathic symptoms and what we might learn about ourselves, our staff and our organisations from its study.
In terms of organisation behaviour we need to understand how best to ensure that while we aspire to strong clear and strategic leadership, that we do so in a spirit of empathy and care for those with whom we interact, whether staff or customers.
That while we are swift and decisive and focussed on creativity and growth, we are also thoughtful, humane and ethical in all that we do.
That we are alert to impact of what Paulus and Williams (2002) describe as “the Dark Triad of personality: psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism” on the health of our organisations and society.
I’ll conclude with a quote from Dennis Tourish, who argues that the current “stress on how leaders transform others inevitably changes the relationship between leaders and followers from a two-way exchange into a process of domination that has an inherently autocratic potential”.
In such an environment some of the strengths of the psychopath may both assist in advancement to high office and bring about potentially catastrophic results.
Rita Marcella is Professor of information management at Robert Gordon University