Do you have to be a psychopath to be a CEO?

December 2019

The penultimate question from the Tortoise x Fora future of work series, and a strong one at that. This conversation delved deeper than the title may suggest, and didn’t reduce CEOs to psychopaths, but it certainly got us thinking.

The ThinkIn panel and audience drew upon personal experience, psychological analysis and years of observation that have formed diverse views on this matter. One thing is certain though, the majority of the room recognised the psychopathic traits in question and many believe they have worked with people who exhibit said behaviours.


Under the surface of life as a CEO

For many CEOs, the truth is that being a leader is really difficult and you can get into some really dark places. When mental health issues aren’t examined or resolved, you can easily find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be, doing things you wouldn’t usually do. CEOs can’t single-handedly manage the pressure of their job and carry the responsibility of an entire organisation’s happiness, yet this is what’s expected of them.

For Louise in the audience, it’s dispassion that differentiates CEOs from other employees – that ability to make tough decisions coolly without being empathetic or compassionate. She considers these traits in relation to pressurised professions like surgeons and a wave of understanding carries over the room. An appreciation that not everyone has what it takes to fulfil these high-pressure roles, but that those who do are probably wired slightly differently.

Supposedly 1 in 5 CEOs are psychopaths. Despite this figure being heavily quoted and discussed, there are some questions around the validity of the study’s claims.


But, are they psychopaths?

Many CEOs do demonstrate psychopathic behaviour. This doesn’t mean they are crazy killers, but they are able to act coolly with extreme focus on the end goal and this is often the reason they’re hired in the first place. That relentless power and ability to work towards a goal by making efficient decisions is unusual for most.

John Vincent, CEO of Leon, started his working life at P&G and has worked with many CEOs during his career. He opens out the conversation further with the idea that we all have an ability to display sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies. He examines behaviour on an individual basis, explaining that we all probably chart somewhere on the spectrum of ‘psychopath’. A lot of this is explained and evidenced in his book, but one of his learnings is around the Enneagram of Personality and the way your personal readings can fluctuate.

For John’s personality type, his worst reading says, ‘if they are in danger, they may brutally destroy everything that is not confirmed to their will’, drawing out descriptions like barbaric, sociopathic and vengeful. While at his best he is said to be considered, self-confident, strong and assertive. These readings aren’t entirely reflective of who we are and purely chart a single moment of question answering, therefore cannot be the official decider. However, they do point to the fact that many of us have the ability to act in a ‘psychopathic’ way when pushed.


Employees and the workplace

Do employees ever consider their bosses emotional state? Perhaps not. There’s a detachment between our emotions and the perceived emotions of our bosses.

Isolating our bosses and compartmentalising them as aliens who are completely separate to us, is a way of dealing with the workplace power dynamic. But that distance causes problems for the relationship. This also, in part, explains the feeling of loneliness at the top as CEOs and other managers are wrongly viewed as barriers to success. With that isolation, negative emotions and greed can certainly arise.

Camilla, a new CEO of a not-for-profit, had an interesting take on the topic. She commented that employees themselves have a role in perpetuating the outdated stereotype. Employees should be given the opportunity to provide bottom-up feedback too otherwise board members will continue to employ individuals who display the same personality types as previous leaders.


Beyond the negatives

Today, a lot of value is placed on value-led leadership, and this movement could help to alleviate some of the negative perceptions of CEOs and bridge the gap with the rest of the team. CEO or not CEO, we are all capable of exhibiting fight or flight, and can easily chart somewhere on the scale of ‘psychopathic’. Above all though, leaders are human, and humans are leaders. Somewhere in ‘business’ we have forgotten this and it’s this disconnect that seems to be creating issues for all parties involved. Perhaps some psychopaths are made, not born.

Heads up: We’ll be releasing the full discussion as a podcast episode very soon so keep an eye on our social channels to listen. Looking for more to get stuck into? To see what other ThinkIns are on the horizon and to listen to past ThinkIns, click here. Come and join the discussion, there’s plenty more to get stuck into.