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“Psychopaths... people who know the differences between right and wrong, but don't give a shit.” ― Elmore Leonard
History Proves Again and Again...
The third Roman Emperor Caligula was renowned for his psychopathic tendencies. He enjoyed watching people being devoured by wild animals and having public sexual encounters with his own sisters. Ivan IV was a Tsar in Russia, who earned the name of Ivan the Terrible for his cruel behaviors, including killing his own son and beating his pregnant daughter-in-law. Vlad Tepes was the Prince of Wallachia and was known for cutting off the breasts of women and forced their husbands to eat them. He earned his psychopathic fame for impaling close to twenty thousand men in the city of Amlas and burning, hacking, chopping small children, and then, feeding them to their mothers.
When I was a little child, a friend of the family would try to “jokingly” encourage us to behave or Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung) would show up at night. Thank goodness, at the young age I had no clue who this Mao really was, but his name sounded ferocious nevertheless. Later, I learned that he was a leader of the Chinese Communist party who was responsible for the deaths of millions of his followers.
Some refer to Mao as history’s greatest psychopathic murderer. He demanded recognition of his absolute power and was well known for his total disregard of human life. When millions of people were forced into the collective communes, they were exposed to terror and starvation. People were starving and dying because they were forbidden to cook for themselves. They had to rely on communal kitchens while working insane hours and starving most of the time. My history teacher told us that during the famine, if children tried to steal food, Mao had their fingers chopped off. His brutal torture methods ranged from burning people in kerosene to nailing their palms on a table. The man was pure evil.
Not All Psychopaths Kill or Get Caught
All these powerful leaders ruled the countries, so of course, they had a heck of a lot of people to hurt and became known for their evil deeds. Everything they’ve done was up for lots of public views. It was difficult to hide their psychopathic tendencies and lack of impulse control since all the attention was working in the leaders’ favor. We know about these leaders because of such a massive span of control they possessed. Not all of the psychopaths kill or get caught. Psychologists have a term – “successful psychopath", someone who has the traits but is able to better control impulses and social anxiety, according to the research from 1990s conducted by Adrien Raine at University of Pennsylvania.
In the CNBC article written by Catherine Clifford in 2016 she states that “psychopathy is an inherited mental disorder, an illness that is the result of a deformity in the brain.” Most likely, people who are born with this deformity are dangerous, but many are very successful in obtaining powerful positions.
Dr. Igor Galynker, the associate chairman for research in the Department of Psychiatry and the founder and director of the Richard and Cynthia Zirinsky Center for Bipolar Disorder at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, told CNBC, "We promote them, we elect them, and sometimes, a lot of people feel comfortable when people like that are in charge of our lives."
What are the chances that you work for a psychopathic boss? Does this thought alone terrify you? Have you taken the time to think about the behaviors your leaders demonstrate daily and compared them to those of a psychopath?
Most would never think about this. But, please, stop for a moment and observe. Many go through life suffering and tolerating the insane behavior of powerful people. If you took the time to get to this point in the article, consider some behavioral analysis. Maybe, just maybe, your unhappiness at work or in your personal life is not caused by you, but by someone who has a very strong influence over you. And this someone could be a successful psychopath.
According to the research conducted by Paul Babiak, Robert Hare, and Craig Neumann in 2010, approximately 3% of those who went through their management development program study and were assessed for psychopathy scored in the psychopath range well above the incidence of 1% in the general population. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist to realize from this study that the probability of working with a boss who actually enjoys seeing you suffer is very likely.
In the book The Art of Survival, Stefan H. Verstappen states that “you are more likely to find psychopaths in the boardroom than on the wrong side of the tracks.” He further explains, “The more competitive the environment is, the more ruthful cheating strategy becomes.” If you look at politicians or big company CEOs, the lack of empathy and remorse is exemplary, as it is a prerequisite for a position of this nature.
I remember one of the leaders in my early career advising me that if I wanted to progress in my jobs, I needed to become less emotional. I can assure you, I don’t come across as someone who is crying all the time or who can’t take the heat. This seemed to be an interesting advice, as he assigned the characteristic of “less emotional” to being important for a leader. I suppose I can see the positive side of it, as you need to stay tough when facing challenges, but if this excludes empathy, then it is certainly disturbing.
So, what are the signs to watch out when dealing with the psychopath?
Dr. William Hirstein, a philosopher, a scientist, a publisher of numerous scientific studies, wrote an article in Psychology Today in 2017 titled “9 Signs That You’re Dealing With a Psychopath.” Here is what he warns us to be on the lookout for in psychopaths.
2. Shallow emotions
4. Insincere speech
6. Narrowing of attention
8. Inability to plan for the future
The above list could be translated into the behaviors of psychopaths and sociopaths who hold leadership roles. Stefan H. Verstappen says that these people “learn from early age that they aren’t normal and develop masterful skills of mimicking what “normal” humans do. If an employee is crying, they will be savvy to say the right things and not to appear emotionless.”
In some instances I've observed the presence of irresponsibility in some senior-level leaders. If they lost a deal, it was not their fault. Someone else was there to blame. If someone sued them, it was definitely an act of injustice that was inflicted on them.
Since the ego of a psychopath is larger than life, they can get bored easily when a conversation is not about them. I recall spending dinner with a very wealthy politician and entrepreneur. Most of our one-hour conversation was about him. He appeared to be extremely polite and courteous for a few minutes and even asked me a few questions about my work. He seemed attentive at first but quickly switched the topic to brag about his accomplishments. What was fascinating, the next day he had no idea who I was and completely ignored my presence in the meeting room. Of course, it could have been me who bored him with my few minutes of sharing and perhaps this happened because I wasn’t at celebrity level for him to pay me much attention. This person certainly felt the need to inform me of all his glorious escapades because his ego dictated for him to be so grand. This type of self-centered behavior always raises red flag for me.
How about lying and deception? The stories made up to protect a psychopath’s image are absolutely incredible. Since the psychopaths are charming, cool, and decisive, it is quite easy to mistake their qualities for great leadership skills. In addition to the charisma, they also are very unethical, remorseful, and cunning. In the article “Executive Psychopaths”, Gardiner Morse, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, said, “There’s nothing they won’t do, and no one they won’t exploit, to get what they want. A psychopathic manager with his eye on a colleague’s job, for instance, will doctor financial results, plant rumors, turn coworkers against each other, and shift his persona as needed to destroy his target.”
Don't Reward Psychopathic Behavior
You don’t have to go far to think of other suspicious examples of people in power who possess some of the traits natural to psychopaths. Take world-known leaders of this era who lied openly without any remorse to accomplish exactly what they wanted. Even after being confronted and discovered as dishonest people, some continued making millions regardless of the magnitude of an impact made on people’s lives. We, the followers, reward this behavior. I am not suggesting that all the powerful leaders who inflict pain are psychopaths, as they might be untrained or sociopaths, or narcissists. It is up to the medical professionals to determine their diagnosis.
If you were ever managed by a leader who was so savvy at manipulation and made people do exactly what he or she wanted, even if it felt uncomfortable, you might have been dealing with a psychopath. They are so incredibly good at that and are able to fool even the experts, I hear. It is quite difficult to spot them. Remember, not all of the psychopaths look like Freddy Krueger in the Hollywood production.
Beware of who you are dealing with and realize that at times you simply need to walk, no, run away from these leaders when the behaviors described above manifest over and over again. The last person you want be around when shit hits the fan is Mr. or Ms. Psychopath. Don’t give in to their ability to make you feel guilty. You aren’t guilty if you are consciously aware that what you are doing is right. Perhaps, you have made a minor mistake, but is there a reason for your manager to chastise and ridicule you constantly to make him or her look great? Most likely not.
Now, I don’t want to encourage anyone to go and assign this title to every manager you disliked in your career. It could be you, who can learn more about your job or deeply imbedded behaviors. Not every person who demonstrates these behaviors is a monster. Many managers are simply untrained and not coached on how to best influence people and mobilize them to action. I only urge you to be vigilant and kind to yourself.
About the Author: Alex Aberle is the President and Founder of XCaliber Coaching & Consulting LLC, a leadership and career development coaching firm. As a Certified Professional and Executive Coach with over 20 years of global experience in leadership and career development, she is on a mission to build a better world of leadership. She is an author of Guide to a Successful Career Transition. Alex helps currents and aspiring leaders to calibrate existing skills, expand knowledge, and innovate approaches to effective performance. She worked with the clients employed by Anthem, Inc., Macy’s, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, YPO, Cisco, BT, Xerox, Interstate Hotels, GE, and others. Contact her at email@example.com or visit a website www.xcalibercoaching.com