Charismatic Leader? Or Psychopathic Traits?

Charismatic-LeaderIf you think that psychopathic behavior is limited to con artists and serial killers, think again. According to authors of Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, some organizations actively seek out and recruit individuals with at least a moderate dose of psychopathic features for leadership positions.

Some careers such as stock broker, politician, law enforcement, car salespeople, and lawyers seem to attract people with characteristics of psychopathy. Granted there are huge differences in severity of traits between a successful salesperson and a con artist.

A talented psychopath can easily feign leadership and management traits that are highly valued when organizations hire, promote and make succession planning decisions.  Charisma can hide a multitude of problems, but it has a dark side. More executives are fired for personality problems than for incompetence.

We’ve seen narcissistic managers exploit subordinates while charming their superiors. Before these problems become evident they can cost the organization huge sums of money, cause poor morale, excessive turnover, and poor productivity.

Psychopaths who are masters at manipulating others can be perceived as having strong persuasion and influencing skills. They can look like strong visionary leaders.

They can invent compelling stories about situations of which they know little about and turn them into surprising visions of the future. Especially in times of crisis, an organization can be swept away by brilliant promises and insights about what the company should do.

Psychopaths are not good at establishing and working toward long-term, strategic objectives, but they are opportunistic. They detect when there’s an opening for bold ideas and take advantage of them. They convince people they can save them.

Psychopaths are risk-takers, impulsive and thrill seeking. What could be a better platform for these traits than leading an organization out of crisis. Such bravado can be mistaken for high energy, action orientation, courage, multitasking and other important management traits.

Because of their detachment from normal human emotions and their lack of conscience, psychopaths can be perceived in organizations as good management material. They have an ability to make hard decisions, to keep their emotions in check, and to remain cool under fire.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? When it comes to hiring or promoting good candidates for leadership, we must be careful not to confuse psychopathic behaviors with genuine leadership talent.

We think we’re not easily fooled by hubris. Psychologists Fritzon and Board, in their study comparing the incidence of personality disorders in business executives against criminals detained in a mental hospital, found that the profiles of senior business managers contained some significant elements of personality disorders, particularly those referred to as the “emotional components” of psychopathy.

When research reveals a surprising percentage of high-potential leaders with psychopathic traits, we should at least become more aware of what these traits look like.

And sometimes, they look pretty good.

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