The term “psychopath” often conjures images of ruthless killers as depicted in countless films and crime novels. Yet, beyond the sensationalised portrayals, there lies a facet of psychopathy that may surprisingly contribute to success in business. This assertion might seem shocking, or even alarming, but several studies have shown that certain psychopathic traits, when exhibited in moderation, may indeed contribute to successful corporate leadership.
Psychopathy is characterised by antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy, unbridled egotism, and boldness, among other traits. It’s important to stress that having one or more of these characteristics doesn’t equate to being a psychopath, and certainly not all successful businesspersons exhibit these traits. Yet, researchers like Professor Kevin Dutton, the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths, argue that some of these traits, when manifesting in the right balance, can drive remarkable success in the business arena.
A primary trait shared by both corporate leaders and psychopaths is fearlessness. As per Dutton, the ability to take calculated risks, a common trait in psychopaths, can also be a significant factor in business success. In a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, researchers found that CEOs often have higher levels of certain psychopathic tendencies than the general population. They argue that these characteristics can lead to fearless decision-making and a relentless drive for success.
Impulsivity, often associated with psychopathy, may also have its advantages in the fast-paced world of business. This trait can lead to rapid decision-making and action-taking that, while potentially risky, can sometimes yield significant benefits. Similarly, the unemotional disposition, characteristic of psychopaths, can help in dealing with stressful situations, allowing leaders to maintain composure and make rational decisions in high-stakes scenarios.
Charisma, often seen in psychopaths, can also be a powerful tool in the business world. The ability to charm and influence others is invaluable in negotiation, building partnerships, and leading teams. In a 2021 study in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers found a significant correlation between psychopathic traits, especially fearlessness and interpersonal dominance, and successful leadership.
Before we draw too many parallels between psychopathy and corporate success, however, it’s vital to address the potential downsides. Though traits such as fearlessness and impulsivity can drive innovation and bold decision-making, they can also lead to recklessness, ethical breaches, and destructive behaviours that damage organisations and individuals. Likewise, while a certain level of emotional detachment can be beneficial in making unclouded decisions, an inability to empathise with employees can lead to poor morale, high turnover, and ultimately, organisational failure.
A large body of research indicates that successful leaders exhibit high emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage their own and others’ emotions. This is a quality often lacking in psychopaths, suggesting that while certain psychopathic traits can aid in business success, they are by no means a guaranteed path to corporate victory.
While it might seem counterintuitive, certain psychopathic tendencies can, in fact, contribute to success in the business world. However, these traits are only one piece of the complex puzzle that constitutes effective leadership. Understanding this, one must remember that a fine line exists between beneficial traits and those that could lead to disaster. It is the delicate balancing act of harnessing these traits without succumbing to their potential destructiveness that can propel some towards success, even at the highest echelons of the corporate world.
Anne Applewood is a senior business analyst and a keen observer of human nature, seeking the fascinating intersections where psychology meets the world of business.
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