Suffer the Psychopath

It seems that empathic leadership is increasingly being devalued in organizations. While the great minds of leadership extol the virtues of engaged, supportive “show me that you care” approaches, it appears that many organizations want to embrace a much different set of values.

Psychopathic leadership seems to be the new shiny thing that is taking some public and private sector organizations by storm. In tough economic times, it would appear that the answer lies with having leaders that exude a bullying narcissism instead of empathy and trust.

The question is why?

It’s been shown for decades that truly great organizations are led by individuals who care deeply about the people working for them as well as the bottom line. CEO Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines is often held up as an example of this approach to empathic leadership. Stephen Covey, in his seminal 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, taught that great leaders are those who have integrity, character, empathy and lead by principles such as honesty and transparency.

I am perplexed how the psychopaths even get a job interview, let alone the job.

Part of the answer is surely the increasing push to short-termism. The need for an immediate financial or productivity turnaround to satisfy shareholders or government overseers often leads organizations to find someone with a clear, “take charge” personality.

And it appears quite simple for these psychopaths to charm their way into an organization. The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently wrote about a study by psychologist Paul Babiak of New York and Bob Hare of the University of British Columbia which shows that psychopathic leaders are not at all like the Hollywood stereotype and are actually highly functioning individuals. They have the innate ability to tell people exactly what they want to hear and “are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates.” Ironically, these leaders are poor performers and often blame others when things don’t go according to plan.

My concern is that well meaning organizations may be conned by psychopathic leaders who have the gift of the gab, the self-confidence and charm. The desire for short-term change and the psychopath’s ability to be the answer to all things, enables them to get a foothold into the organization.

But once the psychopath is in place, they begin to poison the organization with their manipulation, lack of transparency and the ever-present micromanagement needed to cover up shortcomings and delegate failure. Trust is the first thing to fall victim to the psychopath. And like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, the loss of trust beckons the unravelling of the organization. Empathic leaders, who approach issues with principles and integrity, are often at a loss when dealing with the psychopath because they simply cannot get an accurate read on what motivates them and may be victimized by them. While the psychopathic leader may have an immediate, short-term impact, the real damage begins to appear later when the longer-term negative effects are manifested by lost productivity, collapsing morale, reduced commitment and high turnover.

Of course, the simple answer is not to hire the psychopathic leader in the first place. But, unfortunately, the simple answer is not that simple. Organizations need to embrace a healthy dose of caveat emptor when bringing on new leaders. If someone seems too good to be true, perhaps they are. Psychopathic leaders, by their nature, are cunning and the usual interview and reference checks rarely weed them out. Organizations need to watch for warning signs including the loss of high-value staff,  loss of morale, damaged employee commitment and increased conflict. Psychopathic leaders are often narcissistic and cover-up artists so watch for a reluctance of the new leader to take responsibility (or, conversely, to undercut and blame their staff) when something goes wrong.

These are all warning signs. And while the excitement of short-termism often overshadows the damage of the psychopathic leader, organizations need to be aware of the long-term damage these individuals can wreak.

Do you agree that psychopathic leaders are necessarily bad for organizations? Is this just a new catch-phrase for what we used to call the “turnaround specialist”?  Appreciate your comments!