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Psychopathy and leadership

Should leaders be given brain imaging scans for symptoms of psychopathy?

SWELLENDAM: It may be a bit of a provocative headline but recent research gives interesting perspectives on whether certain leadership positions attract psychopathic behaviour. It’s an easy conclusion to reach when we witness the conduct of some political leaders, but does the modern business not do the same?

The modern business is predominantly seen (falsely in my view) as an institution existing primarily for the material self-gain of its owners or investors. It is overwhelmingly driven by the profit motive and has in the past few decades in effect been dehumanised (see article here) by paying homage to an entity called capital and viewing all other factors involved, including customers and employees as exploitable resources. In recent times this perspective has been greatly enhanced through the growth of big corporations, especially in finance; greater oligarchical centralisation of economic power and the pursuit of maximum returns in the shortest time possible – also called short-termism. 

This may sound excessively disparaging of the modern business, but even if we remove innuendo, that description will fit modern organisational theory and practice.

The leader clearly has to fit this remit and be convincingly able to chant the mantra: “It’s not personal; it’s business.” He or she has to be focused fully on shareholder value to which end he or she is rewarded handsomely (some may argue excessively) in achieving profit and investment performance criteria. Even where these are tempered by law, governance and ethical requirements, the latter are viewed as constraints that have to be managed, if not exploited to become a competitive edge. Everything is viewed as resources that have to be managed and squeezed to ensure maximum returns.

Apart from obvious qualifications such as knowledge, experience (and even ethnic prescriptions in South Africa) modern business executives should have certain personality traits such as strong, at times even ruthless leadership skills; be charming, persuasive, charismatic, convincing, and perhaps even manipulative. 

The above apply particularly to those leaders falling into the category of “professional manager” which make up the bulk of executives in business today, especially in the large corporates. In an earlier article (see here) I drew a clear and very important distinction between them and creators and builders in business, those entrepreneurs who have made a difference to our lives and changed the business landscape. 

The popular view of psychopaths is a rather scary one: killers, rapists, conmen and criminals. The formal view is just as unflattering, describing it as a “personality disorder characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness” or someone possessing “superficial charm, pathological lying and a diminished capacity for remorse.” 

There is also a scientific diagnosis done under brain scan imaging which reveals that normal mirror neurons which are stimulated to trigger empathy are not activated in psychopaths, but rather disturbingly according Science daily “show an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.” It’s been shown that only 1% of the population have this condition, although up to 25% of criminals diagnosed in American prisons have the disorder. So even if they were in high demand, it’s doubtful whether leadership positions contain many of them.

But it is not as simple as that either. Latest research conducted by Dutch neuroscientists (see BBC News report here) shows that while psychopaths do not spontaneously and instinctively respond empathetically to the emotions and distress of others, they have an empathy switch which can be turned on, not by simply witnessing distress in others, but by imagining themselves in that situation.

This gives perspective to the findings of American neuroscientist, James Fallon, a self-diagnosed psychopath who calls himself a “pro-social psychopath” (see published interview here). He distinguishes between instinctive empathy as being “emotional empathy” and the “switched on” empathy as being “cognitive empathy”. 

This may explain why psychopaths can be highly effective in any given situation. After all, skilled actors when adopting a character role for a performance can be more convincing than a purely emotionally charged response. In most of us cognitive empathy exists side by side with emotional empathy with psychopaths simply not having the latter. Fallon says psychopaths display some 20 different traits, not all of which are negative or even dangerous. One which is highly sought after in leaders, is called “fearless dominance”.

He believes that cognitive empathy was a significant attribute of many great leaders such as Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela (his examples). This is not to say that they did not have emotional empathy to begin with; simply that their effectiveness was most likely enhanced by regular use or perhaps even permanent opening of the cognitive empathy switch.

Clearly cognitive empathy is an essential trait for the modern business executive. But if it is not tempered by emotional empathy and guided by a strong clear moral compass, it simply becomes a manipulative tool for self-gain that could cross the line into being severely damaging to others or even becoming criminal. On the other hand, psychopaths, because of enhanced strengths that accompany the condition and who have become adept at practicing cognitive empathy will most likely be more attractive to lead a modern business organisation. 

It could be argued then that someone who practices habitual cognitive empathy to the point that it becomes virtually instinctive, will be just as functional, if not more so, than someone who relies mostly on emotional empathy. The real danger is that someone who relies solely on cognitive empathy will be able to switch it off once he or she believes it is no longer needed. This could explain why absolute power often corrupts the holder.

Given our increasing knowledge of the brain and the danger that psychopaths inherently present, a strong case can be made for routine brain scan imaging of any incumbent or potential leader or executive.

Of far greater concern is the extent to which our understanding of business does not require a suppression of emotional empathy. The even more frightening question is whether modern life itself is not forcing humanity to do the same. 

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Thank you for highlighting this; psychopathic behaviour especially at leadership level has long been a concern. Read Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare.
I don’t agree however that modern organisational theory is based on creating shareholder value. On the contrary, modern organisational theory is peppered with stakeholder theory, collaborative approaches and creating shared value and it requires a very strong EQ at leadership level. Organisational research strongly suggests that short-termism is not sustainable – in fact erodes a competitive sustainable advantage – perhaps leadership in SA needs to wake up and smell the more modern (and welcome) thinking in this regard.

The thing is – a brain scan is no clear predictor of behaviour. One expert on psychopaths (author of The Psychopath Whisperer) says there is one born every 47 seconds. Some of them are functional. Some of the psychopath experts have also had the brain scan and turned up a positive result and yet seem like pretty sound people. While I agree that many leaders I have come across are grim, egotistical, narcissistic and generally unpleasant, I’m afraid I don’t think there’s any getting rid of them. Unless women ruled the world, that is…

Claire for President! 🙂

When dealing with political “leaders” the benefit or otherwise of a brain-scan presupposes the presence of a brain. This might be a problem.

The problem with psychopathy is that their lack of conscience means loyalty to no one. They will betray everyone, even family, harm the environment, and destroy the planet NO PROBLEM. Betrayal is the ultimate harm being done by psychopaths.

I developed a list for detecting a psychopath early without using the antisocial personality traits, which they hide at first. It is based on observing their dysfunctional habits: “How to Spot a Pro-Social Psychopath”

End of comments.


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