Early in my career I worked for four professional-level persons, two of them military officers, who I seriously thought must be crazy, though all four were well-regarded by their superiors.  Of these four crazies, one Army captain's career ended with a nervous breakdown when the colonel caught him in serious operational dishonesty.  Later, a civilian logistics manager went through personality and career collapse while I worked for him.

These experiences were at first extremely distressing, as these characters were dishonest, wasteful, quite literally made people sick, and threw vile temper tantrums to the point of property damage.  But usually not in front of superiors.  Their actions were so bizarre that their behaviors eventually became sort of a joke for me.  I got out of the Army and went back to school for an MBA with extensive side reading in psychology.  I had the specific intent to learn why the Army kept crazy officers.  I learned exactly nothing during the MBA program that was of use in answering my questions.  My first two managers after grad school were exactly in the pattern, only worse.

This resulted in a forty-year quest for answers, and my first discovery was that many people have had similar experiences (but not four such experiences!); most people do not voluntarily talk of such matters, so you have to learn to ask the right questions.  It is only recently that organizational psychopaths as identified by professional psychologists have come to national attention, and I have professional confirmation that the four individuals for whom I had worked did in fact exhibit traits typical of psychopaths. 

Working for such crazies creates disturbing to devastating personal crises for the victims, including serious illnesses, especially if the victim is young and inexperienced in such matters.  Since this type of experience usually happens only once in a career if it happens at all, the experience is eventually rationalized away.  But there is an historical trend here with little comprehension except among leading psychologists, and the pieces of the puzzle are still falling into place:

  • Dr. Hervey Cleckley, author of The Mask of Insanity, did seminal work in defining modern psychopathy in the 1940s.  Dr. Cleckley dealt primarily with small-town psychopaths in and out of mental hospitals and jails.  Dr. Cleckley had very few comments on professional-level psychopaths, and he was ambiguous about the possibility of mass-murdering criminal psychopaths.
  • In the 1970s, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy brought the mass-murdering criminal psychopath to public attention.  To this day, this remains the most common perception of psychopathic behavior, but the field of knowledge has gone well beyond mass-murdering criminal psychopathy.
  • In the 1990s, Sunbeam Corporation, Enron, and WorldCom brought the organizational psychopath to public attention.  These corporate scandals were measured in the multi-billion-dollar range, and they disrupted many lives and careers.  During this time, Dr. Robert Hare devised the most widely used test for psychopathic behavior, the Psychopathic Check List - Revised (PCL-R).  Dr. Hare was co-author of Snakes in Suits, which presented case histories of organizational psychopaths, similar to Dr. Cleckley's case histories of small-town psychopaths, and in fact similar to my experiences from four decades ago.
  • More recently, Dr. Clive Boddy has made a plausible argument that "Corporate Psychopaths," including political and financial psychopaths, were central to the 2008 financial meltdown.  The 2008 debacle was well up in the multi-trillion-dollar range.  If most people have not personally experienced a psychopath at disturbingly close hand, most people did lose a substantial amount of wealth immediately after the crash of the housing bubble.  According to Dr. Boddy, financial psychopaths played a prominent role in the 2008 financial collapse and they became richer, just as most Americans were becoming poorer.  Dr. Boddy observes that the same people who were in charge during the corrupt mortgage fraud scandal, including politicians, bureaucrats, and bankers, are now in charge of correcting the problems they created.
  • Just within the last few weeks, the LIBOR scandal has gone to the heart of the global economy, and as yet there is no psychological analysis of the events except insofar that Dr. Boddy's observations are pertinent.  There does seem to be a copycat effect in operation.  For example, Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide, had a reputation as a straight arrow, calling dealers in sub-prime mortgages "crooks."  But when Mozilo discovered that he was being out-competed in the mortgage markets, he joined the crook brigade, eventually being named as the second-worst CEO in American history, following "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap of Sunbeam Corporation.
  • Just at a time when criminal psychopathy is seemingly accelerating toward some sort of terminal point, appreciation of the psychology of the organizational psychopath problem lags by a decade or more.  The current social, political, and financial situation reminds one of the turmoil during the Weimar Republic, with disturbingly similar players.
  • Almost without exception, high-ranking politicians exhibiting behaviors related to psychopathy are members of the Democratic Party, based on published criteria[i] for psychopathic behavior.
  • There are a number of prominent Democratic Party members who fit somewhere on the psychopathic profile, showing remarkably consistent psychopathic traits, and in particular narcissistic traits.  Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, is now a convicted criminal based on corruption charges, had repeated ethical irregularities, was irresponsible and never accepted blame for his mistakes nor ever apologized, and threw temper tantrums -- poor behavioral control.  Blagojevich also had a rocky relationship with his own father-in-law and with other ranking politicians.  Bernie Madoff was a prominent supporter of Democratic Party efforts, and the Democratic Party returned tens of thousands of dollars when Madoff was convicted in the biggest private Ponzi scheme in history.  Traits credited to Mr. Madoff include "lying, manipulation, the ability to deceive, feelings of grandiosity and callousness toward [his] victims," straight out of Dr. Hare's Check List.
  • The culture is evolving rapidly, and the practice of psychopathy evolves with it.  According to Dr. Boddy, rapid changes and growth in technology, financial instruments, and size of organizations have led to many new opportunities for the psychopathically inclined.  Psychopaths are now in a corporate culture that welcomes rapid movement rather than stability, and as psychopaths create problems, they can take the money and run before the changing corporate culture catches up with them.  Rahm Emanuel and Jon Corzine appear to fit this profile.  In spite of losing over a billion dollars of his clients' money, the Justice Department shows no interest in prosecuting Corzine, who is now bundling campaign cash for another prominent Democratic Party member showing psychopathic traits.
  • Meanwhile, there is a large body of data that human resources experts have identified as the "bully boss" phenomena.  There is no substantive difference between "bully bosses" and "psychopathic bosses."  Why professional managers of the largest corporations are persistently blind to personality disorders high within their ranks is key.  Identifying bully bosses as having severe personality disorders would seem to be a major step forward in solving the psychopathy problem.
  • Only a qualified psychologist can make a determination of psychopathy, and then only after extensive personal interviews with the subject, but most people can recognize antisocial behavior (criminal actions, dishonesty) and narcissistic behavior, which together define psychopathy.  Dr. Lyle Rossiter's book, The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness, describes a wide range of "good-enough" parenting that tends to produce an autonomous individual capable of joining with other autonomous individuals to achieve mutual goals in economic, civic, and cultural endeavors.  Children who experience inadequate, abusive, or inconsistent parenting are more likely to develop antisocial or narcissistic traits to some degree, ranging from mild to Casey Anthony to Adolf Hitler.

I am not a qualified psychologist, but I can read as well as anyone.  I see this as a complex puzzle that is on the verge of coming into wide public recognition, just as mass-murdering psychopaths came into wide public awareness during the 1970s.  It is vital that the awareness is based on rational principles rather than Democratic Party talking points.  I would like to see expanded awareness of organizational psychopathic phenomena while reinforcing the constitutional, rule-of-law, republican principles on which this nation was founded. 

James G. Long has been an army captain, a professional engineer, an author, and a blogger, with a lifelong interest in organizational management problems.

[i] The current clinical definition of psychopathy is based on Dr. Hare's Psychopathy Check List - Revised (PCL-R), consisting of twenty-one items in three groups: Aggressive Narcissism (eight items such as superficial charm, grandiosity, dishonesty, shallow affect), Socially Deviant Lifestyle (nine items such as need for stimulus, parasitic lifestyle, irresponsibility), and Un-correlated Traits (four items such as promiscuous sexual behavior and criminal versatility).  Additionally, Dr. Hare noted that psychopaths frequently have difficult relationships with their own parents and with authority figures.