1 in 5 business leaders may have psychopathic tendencies—here's why, according to a psychology professor
"I am a thrill seeker."
"I like to get revenge on authorities."
"I never feel guilty."
"People who mess with me always regret it."
If you think any of the statements above describe you, then you most likely have a tendency to display antisocial, callous and reckless behaviors. According a study dating back to 2010, there were at least three times as many psychopaths in executive or CEO roles than in the overall population. But more recent data found it's now a much higher figure: 20 percent.
Spotting a psychopath
Narcissism involves an unrealistic sense of grandiosity and superiority, manifested in the form of vanity, self-admiration and delusions of talent. Here are the main characteristics of narcissistic and toxic bosses:
1. They often crave validation and recognition from others. This is primarily because their self-esteem is high but fragile. Bosses who constantly show off are probably desperate for others' admiration.
2. They tend to be self-centered. This means they're generally less interested in others and have deficits in empathy. For this reason, they are rarely found displaying any genuine consideration for people other than themselves.
3. They have high levels of entitlement. Narcissists commonly behave as if they deserve certain privileges or enjoy higher status than their peers enjoy.
The bright and dark sides
As I highlight in my most recent book, "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)," many wildly celebrated character traits, such as courage and risk-taking, often coexist with psychopathic tendencies.
For example, during the last major tsunami that devastated Thailand, an Australian businessman became an instant hero with the media for single-handedly saving the lives of 20 people, yet it later transpired that this same individual had been a fugitive of the Australian police for years because of assault and robbery charges.
In a similar vein, a British firefighter who was awarded a medal of honor for his heroic actions during the 2005 London terrorist attack, when he risked his life saving the passengers of the bombed bus, is now serving a 14-year prison sentence for his involvement in a $135 million cocaine ring.
By the same token, some of the most iconic entrepreneurs have been associated with egoistic tendencies. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, for example, are two icons whose disruptive personalities made them as innovative as they were difficult to work with.
Jobs got fired from his own company and displayed clear patterns of low empathy and antisocial behavior: Parking in the disabled parking spots and bullying and intimidating his employees. Musk's narcissistic side has also been manifested — rather often — in his combative rants with investors, the media and his employees, as well as his confrontational and erratic social media presence.
But it's not all bad. Jobs and Musk undeniably have talent for entrepreneurship, defined as the ability to translate original and useful ideas into practical innovations.
That can't be said for every entrepreneur, though. While Elizabeth Holmes lost her "billionaire" title, she styled herself as the Steve Jobs of health care and was clearly ruthless in deceiving investors. Instead of bringing an innovative product to the market, she was selling nothing but a fairy tale.
Finding the balance
To some degree, all successful entrepreneurs have problems with authority, which is why they are so eager to demolish the status quo and replace it with something else.
To be sure, too much psychopathy will predispose someone to crime and prison rather than Apple or Amazon. But at the other extreme of the continuum, people who are so conforming and eager to please would much rather follow established rules and remain "good employees" rather than be disruptive leaders.
So while a certain degree of nonconformity and unconventionality is needed to drive innovation and entrepreneurship, any leader will need to have a minimum level of integrity, empathy and altruism to be able to connect with and focus on the well-being of their teams, rather than on advancing their own personal agenda.
It is this range of pro-social and ethical traits that can turn even contrarian and combative personalities into a catalyst for good in society: Replacing the status quo with a better version of progress.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard's Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He's the author of "Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It)." Follow him on Twitter here.
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