How Psychopaths Become CEOs

how psychopaths become ceos

Over the past several months, I’ve been doing a bunch of research on a a variety of topics, one of which is the presence of psychopaths in the workplace and their effect on teams and organizational culture. There will be other posts where I unpack some of that stuff, but one of the many things I found fascinating during the course of this research was the path psychopaths take to become CEOs.

Now before visions of Christian Bale’s blood-spattered face haunt you for the rest of the day, let’s refocus. Think of Mr. Burns there above. See? Now your brain is traveling down the path toward a happier place, or at least one that’s not quite as dark.

According to research, CEO is the position with the highest concentration/percentage of psychopaths of any profession, and the rate of psychopaths showing up in CEO roles is higher than the rate among the general population. Kind of makes you wonder how that’s possible, doesn’t it?

Well, for the longest time, I had a vague hypothesis that went something like this:

We know that among other things, psychopaths…

  • are superficially charming and intelligent
  • are egocentric
  • exhibit grandiosity
  • lack real remorse, but are skilled at manufacturing the appearance of remorse
  • lack real empathy, but are skilled at manufacturing the appearance of empathy
  • regularly lie
  • exaggerate their accomplishments and take credit for things others actually did
  • are impatient and impulsive
  • are intimidating, passive aggressive, and threatening

Given those things…

  • It makes sense that psychopaths can pretty easily charm the socks off a recruiter, hiring manager, or board; get in the door; and climb the ladder quickly by doing the things psychopaths do.
  • Put more simply, many psychopaths possess a skillset that enables them to easily climb the corporate ladder.
  • Now don’t misunderstand — they’re terrible leaders. It’s not a leadership skillset that they possess. But they use those things I listed, among other things, to charm their way to the top.

So that was my general hypothesis about how it all goes down; but after doing a bunch (“bunch” being a very scholarly and precise term that my grad school professors would surely have scolded me for using back in the day) of research, it turns out that the above hypothesis is actually fairly close to how it goes.

Let’s walk through how it works. For some of you, this description may send chills up your spine.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Approach Phase

Psychopaths often are adept in social situations, which naturally suits them quite well when interviewing and obtaining positions they want. That’s why after they approach an organization and get hired, you may see them promoted rapidly. Rather than earning promotions through actual achievements, they’ll basically talk and charm their way into new positions.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Analysis Phase

They just can’t help themselves. Shortly after they get in, they’re going to start meeting with as many people as they can. It’ll be explained in any number of ways; but for psychopaths, it’s hard-wired in that they begin to analyze people to see who holds power and who doesn’t, who can be used and who can’t, who’s going to be a problem and who’s not, who’s going to be an ally and who’s not, etc. It’s amazing how quickly they become chummy with all the right people.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Angling Phase

Having done the analysis, psychopaths will then begin angling for what they want. They’ll start using the allies they discovered in the previous phase (and have since been cultivating through wining and dining, outings, or whatever other methods they deem most effective) to build a coalition to get what they want.

At the same time, they’ll begin to either manipulate the truth, or even outright lie, about anything or anyone they perceive to be a threat to them or their objectives. They often get away with this, because most folks have a hard time believing that people could be as blatantly dishonest as psychopaths are. But alas, they are.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Aggression Phase

In order to get what they want (most often this is either to get to the top, maintain their control at the top, regain their control at the top, gain more power at the top, etc.), psychopaths will do almost anything. They will not hesitate to lie, manipulate, be emotionally abusive, be passive aggressive, or even overtly aggressive. Of course, if called on this behavior, or if word of it spreads to others, they’ll simply deny it, play on people’s emotions, or do whatever else works based on the situation.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Apex Phase

They’ll do all of these things in order to keep climbing, until eventually, they’ll reach the top of that organization or reach whatever objective it is they’re wanting. Once psychopaths get that, their allies are only as necessary as they are useful; so they’re often discarded until they become useful again.

As psychopaths do, they will often seek ways to visibly demonstrate their grandiose estimations of themselves. They’ll feel the need to run in the most exclusive circles. Their offices will never quite be big or lavish enough. Their salary? Never quite high enough. They’ll never feel like they’re getting enough respect. They crave the envy of others.

How Psychopaths Become CEOs: The Angst Phase

But here’s the thing. It’s never enough for them. Once they’ve reached the apex, they’ll just start scanning the horizon for the next thing. (Kind of how homicidal psychopaths turn into serial killers, a la Ted Bundy, who was as charming as they come, by the way.)

They’re usually irresponsible and impulsive (part of what makes them awful leaders), and typically become increasingly uncomfortable in leadership roles the longer they’re in them because their poor leadership, bad decisions, awful treatment of people, lies and deceit, and general incompetence begin to catch up to them. That makes them more and more antsy to get out, and that feeling, coupled with the feeling that they deserve something so much bigger and better than what they have, often makes them continue looking elsewhere, provided their current situation doesn’t continue enabling their awfulness. The only exception is what I just alluded to: teams and organizations that enable the psychopath, and ignore or allow the behavior, will remain under the toxic reign of the psychopath.

So what do you think? Sound like anyone you know? Like I said, more to come on this. Feel free to leave your thoughts and observations in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “How Psychopaths Become CEOs

  • Wow, Matt. That was a bit dark! Although I am looking forward to more detail in many of these areas. Thankfully none of your article applies to our current CEO!

  • This slots in with why Jim Collins says Level 5 leaders often don’t make it to the top – They don’t do any of the things mentioned above. Also looking at Susan Cain’s hypothesis in her excellent book “Quiet”, we see that our culture is biased towards extroversion, which is where psychopaths flourish…

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