The psychopath leader

A great episode of BBC’s Horizon hints that business leaders may feature 4x more psychopaths than the average population – up to one in 25 – just might explain why some leaders have driven banks and other firms to keep doing things everyone knows are dumb, messing things up for the rest of us in the process. I guess we each have our own examples – I worked with one in academia too!

The programme reviewed basic findings about psychopathy [I heard “gene malfunction leads to missing brain function, causing lack of empathy and need for thrills”] – then got on to why some become killers [most don’t because of nurturing up-bringing]. Then the punchy issue for us – most psychopaths are not killers and are all around us – they still lack empathy, and seek thrills for the brain stimulation the rest of us don’t need. They blend in just fine by mimicking others without caring at all about them.

As a program contributor said – ‘What better environment for the psychopath than the modern corporation?’ where they can charm, manipulate, lie, cheat, intimidate and defy reasoned argument to get their way and make the big throws they need for their thrills. These might come off, but might destroy the business and its people’s well-being. In one case, half of colleagues thought the person a great boss – the essence of the charismatic leader – the other half thought him the devil incarnate.

The last piece is bad news – while these characters featured high on charisma, their actual performance was lousy, both as a team player (very divisive) and in delivering performance. Maybe we need checks to make sure reason (including sound strategy!) doesn’t get destroyed by psychopaths leading our corporations? Just maybe the banking crisis need not have happened?

The programme episode can be viewed on BBC iPlayer [UK only, sorry] here’s info on its sources and here’s a newspaper article on it.

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