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Why a Disproportionate Number of CEOs Are Psychopaths


Journalist Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry sheds some new light on psychopaths and the mental health industry that surrounds them. During his research, Ronson learned that the about 4 percent of CEOs are psychopaths, which is nearly four times the rate in the general population. In fact, CEOs are more likely to exhibit psychopathic traits than folks with any other job title. The question is, why?

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(Photo Credit: Schill/Flickr)

The term psychopathic (and its somewhat gentler counterpart — sociopathic) is ever evolving, and a precise definition is hard to pinpoint. However, some traits rise to the surface no matter who you ask. PsychCentral explains it, in part, this way:

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“So who are psychopaths? Broadly speaking, they are people who use manipulation, violence and intimidation to control others and satisfy selfish needs. They can be intelligent and highly charismatic, but display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse or anxiety about any of their actions.”

The Hare Psychopathy Checklist is a commonly used diagnostic tool as well, it identifies traits frequently exhibited by this challenging 1 percent of the population.

Not all psychopaths are violent and vicious, but that doesn’t make them any less toxic, especially in a work environment, particularly when they’re the boss. But, why is there such a disproportionate amount of CEOs who are psychopaths? There are a few potential explanations.

1. They understand how to use people for the most gain.

Psychopaths have a tendency to understand the assets that individuals bring to the table. They can sum people up easily in terms of their strengths, their value, easily detaching from more nuanced or interpersonal aspects of their character. Psychopaths know how to boil someone down to their bare bones value – and that makes them “good managers,” at least as far as the bottom line is concerned, because they can quickly assess someone’s most valuable assets and capitalize on those traits.

2. They’re master manipulators.

Psychopaths are cunning, and they use their manipulation skills to get people to do things they might not normally do. They use charm at first, which can be very hard to see through, and then guilt, or even force, to get people to act the way they want them to. These traits might help CEOs to get their jobs in the first place, and they certainly can use these traits to help keep them.

3. They think they’re special.

An inflated sense of self-worth is a primary feature of psychopathy. These people often possess a grand view of their talents and potential, and this kind of confidence might help propel them into leadership positions. Additionally, willingness to take calculated risks is a very common trait of CEOs when compared with non-CEO executives – and confidence helps psychopaths hit that mark.

4. Stoic, emotional self-control helps them thrive.

An ability to stay calm and emotionally level under pressure is a helpful trait for CEOs. Pressure doesn’t impact psychopaths the way it does others. Perhaps it’s because they lack the empathy, or perhaps it’s because of their lack of remorse and guilt; either way, psychopaths stay calm even when most everyone else falls apart. And, that makes them stand out in the business world.

Working for a psychopath can be extremely challenging because they experience the world so differently than other people. Check out these tips from Forbes for surviving such a boss. And, remember, the normal rules of interpersonal interaction don’t apply here. Working for a psychopath is entirely different than working for any other boss, and often more than a little confusing. Never forget that they aren’t motivated or compelled by the same things you are, and nothing can change that.

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I wrote a story abut working for a psychopath, I call her the Dragon Boss Lady. I feel for anyone else in this situation my boss set out to ruin my life. But jokes on her because I am so much happier now.

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