Psychopathic Behavior and Leaders

When talking to experienced persons during my seminars and conversations, I find some who have never heard of psychopathy, some whose knowledge of psychopathy ends with the fictional Hannibal Lecter, and some who have a vague memory from a course in college.  But the most interesting responses are always from those who have worked for a boss whom they thought was "crazy" and who are utterly confused by their experiences, just as I was when I first worked for a psychopath forty-nine years ago.  Statistically, about one-half of all workers will work for a psychopath within their lifetimes.  I have had both women and men come up to me in tears after a seminar, grateful to learn that there was an explanation for their devastating experiences.  Psychopathy is the world's worst and most destructive mental disorder, and ignorance is not bliss. 

When discussing psychopaths herein, I will try to designate as psychopaths those whose psychological state has been clinically assessed by a professional.  There are many psychopath-type personalities who are deceased or who have not been formally assessed, such as Vladimir Putin.  These characters will be identified as psychopath-types or as operational psychopaths, based on the psychopathic chaos they create and on their recognized psychopathic traits, such as pathological dishonesty, not to mention invading other countries.

The original clinical description of psychopathy was by Dr. Hervey Cleckley in 1941 in his book, The Mask of Sanity.  Dr. Robert Hare picked up the torch from Dr. Cleckley and has done extensive work in identifying neurological abnormalities unique to psychopaths.  Psychopathy is usually associated with genetic, traumatic, psychological, or sociological damage or disruption to the brain and nervous system.  Psychopaths can often be identified by neurological tests that reveal unique patterns as shown by electroencephalograms (EEGs), functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs), and Computer Tomography (CT) scans. 

Dr. Hare expanded Dr. Cleckley's original work in identifying characteristics of psychopaths, and has prepared the Psychopathy Check List - Revised (PCL-R) based on Dr. Cleckley's original work.  The Check List consists of twenty-one items related to narcissistic and anti-social behaviors plus criminal tendencies and sexual immaturity.  When the PCL-R is administered by a trained expert, it is quite accurate in identifying psychopaths and sociopaths, and it is used extensively by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Unfortunately, knowledge of psychopathy is largely unknown and is under-utilized within the general population, who are the primary victims of financial and political psychopaths in the USA. 

Psychopathy has been identified as a prime factor in serial murder cases, mass murders, wars, and financial and organizational disasters and failures, in addition to the more mundane family and community dysfunctional behaviors and crimes.  A psychopath has no conscience and therefore has few internal restraints on his own behaviors.  A psychopath does, however, create a fake personality (Dr. Cleckley's "mask") to conceal his crimes and his manipulative and self-serving activities. Psychopaths want to control you, and they use their fake personality to exercise that control. 

The semi-fictional novel, The Caine Mutiny, is one of the premier naval stories in history, and it was published in 1951.  This was ten years after Dr. Cleckley's initial clinical description of psychopathy.  Regardless, The Caine Mutiny identified the ship's captain, Lt. Commander Queeg, as paranoid, though the actual story line had a perfect description of a psychopathic personality with paranoia as a minor co-morbidity.  This is an indication of how little awareness that there was of psychopathy in 1951, and psychopathy is only somewhat more well-known now, over seventy years later. 

Co-morbidities are common among psychopaths -- substance abuse, kleptomania, sexual deviation, and other mental disorders, including psychotic disorders and mood disorders.  Paranoia is one of the psychotic (thinking) disorders but psychopathy is a personality disorder, and these disorders are profoundly different though quite often mistaken for one another.  I spent thirty years in the military and in industry thinking that I had worked for four crazy (psychotic) bosses before finally discovering that they, in fact, had the characteristics of psychopaths.   Psychotic persons are, at worst, implicated in the occasional school or post office shooting, but psychopaths create much greater social and economic disasters, and sometimes mass murders. 

Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty is an historical character who also displayed the characteristics of a psychopath.  At a time when mutiny in the British navy was automatically subject to the death penalty, Captain Bligh was a principal during three mutinies, two at sea and one in a territorial command in Australia.  After the Bounty mutiny, Bligh did a magnificent job of navigating a very small and overloaded boat several thousand miles in the open ocean to safety.

Both Bligh and Queeg, who was written as a Naval Academy graduate, had the intelligence, knowledge, and experience to excel in their naval careers but their shortcomings were in their personality disorders.  Psychopaths usually appear to be perfectly normal, and in most ways they are perfectly normal.  In psychopathy, a marked dichotomy is contained within the psychological make-up of a single person, the very nasty personality that is native to the psychopath and an alternate, more appealing, often charismatic and very fake personality constructed to manipulate or defraud the psychopath's victims.  This becomes very confusing to subordinates who have to deal with a psychopath, as the psychopath may rapidly shifts personalities, sometimes in mid-sentence. 

The psychopath labors mightily to present a single attractive personality to superiors and to those whom he seeks to impress.  Psychopaths usually do not seek to impress subordinates except with bullying behaviors.  Two of the most popular and well-known naval stories in the English language featured psychopath-type personalities.  The psychopathic contradictions and conflicts surrounding these two protagonists, Bligh and Queeg, are precisely the driving forces behind the attraction of these stories. 

The psychopathic contradictions and conflicts surrounding the Soviet Union destroyed the Soviet Union, and will destroy Putin's Russia, at great cost to all concerned.  Major psychopathic conflicts typically unfold over decades or centuries, as the psychopathic militant Islamist conflicts and the Marxist and post-Marxist conflicts are doing now.

Psychopathy is counterintuitive and complex; psychopathic behaviors vary widely, to the point that different individual psychopaths appear to have no similarities and nothing in common.  This is misleading, in that the common denominator for all psychopaths is a lack of conscience that allows the psychopath to pursue ambitious and destructive activities within his own interests and capabilities, with no regard for bystanders and negative regard for his chosen victims.  The psychopath's early family life and culture largely determine how his psychopathy is expressed, and psychopathic expression therefore varies widely.  Psychopathy is often found among abused children, and is a factor for almost all known serial murderers and among many operational psychopathic mass-murdering dictators: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Saddam Hussein most prominently.  Other totalitarian psychopaths seem to come from privileged backgrounds, including Napoleon, Lenin, and the Kim dynasty in North Korea. 

When I was first researching this topic, I gave a talk to a group of people about the corrosive damage done to personalities that had been subject to child abuse.  One of my listeners stated that his nephew was just like a psychopath, only the nephew had been "spoiled rotten" as a child.  This led me to the conclusion that spoiling a child is a form of child abuse.  Ted Kennedy immediately comes to mind. 

About one percent of all people are psychopathic, which amounts to something over three million psychopaths in the USA and perhaps sixteen million among Muslims.  Most psychopaths are spouse and family abusers, drunks, and bums, and are usually not well-known outside their own communities.  About one-third of convicted criminals test positive for psychopathy, but most do not.  Criminal and ne'er-do-well psychopaths were described more fully in Dr. Robert Hare's book, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us

Psychopathy is quite randomly distributed within the population, and inevitably there are some psychopaths who are intelligent and eloquent, and who tend to be educated and to become organizational psychopaths.  It is no exaggeration to say that there are psychopaths who qualify as geniuses.  Obama is no genius, as even his strongest Democratic Party supporters are starting to recognize, but his friend and mentor and fellow psychopath-type, Bill Ayers, very well could have a genius-level intellect. 

The relatively few organizational psychopaths are much more damaging from a social and economic standpoint than are the more numerous family and community psychopaths.  Intelligent psychopaths are also quite capable of fabricating elaborate masks of competence and qualifications to cover their fraudulent activities.  Being intelligent, the organizational psychopath tends to cause more damage and is more capable of evading criminal responsibility for his actions.  Psychopaths surround themselves with enablers and supporters, and organizational and state psychopaths develop a psychopathic culture around themselves.  Dr. Hare reports that highly qualified psychopaths are ambitious and manipulative and may represent three to four percent of corporate executives.  Psychopaths are undoubtedly well represented in other organizations besides corporations. 

Organizational and professional psychopaths come in all types; corporate executives, financial executives, military officers, religious leaders, lawyers, medical doctors, and psychologists have been identified as psychopaths.  Dr. Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak co-authored the book Snakes in Suits which dealt specifically with corporate psychopaths, but much of the information therein is equally applicable to other organizational psychopaths.

Dr. Belinda Board and Dr. Katarina Fritzon have done extensive research into psychopathy, including corporate psychopathy.  According to these good doctors, there are successful psychopaths at the head of corporations and unsuccessful psychopaths that are in prison.  In actual practice, a number of successful psychopaths became unsuccessful psychopaths when they are convicted of crimes and jailed.  Both Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom and Jeff Skilling at Enron destroyed their own multi-billion dollar corporations and were assessed as psychopaths, convicted of fraud, and sent up for long terms.  Twenty thousand jobs were lost and billions of dollars of corporate value were destroyed when Enron failed.  (Full disclosure -- I was a contract Senior Project Engineer in an Enron company during the fall, and was dismissed along with thousands of others.)  Skilling also contributed to the destruction of Arthur Andersen, one of the Big Five international accounting firms, and the Big Five are now the Big Four.  Organizational and state psychopaths cast a wide net, and enablers and supporters and innocent by-standers fail when the psychopath fails.  There were a string of additional corporate psychopath failures in the 1990s.

Dr. Clive Boddy has made a credible argument that the 2008 worldwide financial meltdown was driven by financial psychopaths.  Dr. Boddy also did extensive statistical analyses that validated the destructive nature of psychopathic behaviors as described in the twenty-one items in Dr. Hare's PCL-R.  Political psychopaths worked closely with the financial psychopaths and were fully engaged in the worldwide financial fraud in 2008

Ponzi schemers, such as Bernie Madoff, also exhibit characteristics consistent with financial psychopathy. 

Understanding of psychopathy is lacking.  Mental disorders are at the root of most human interactive tragedies, and psychopathy is by far the worst of the mental disorders. Psychopathy is ignored, or avoided, because it is complex and has negative political implications, especially for Progressives.  For example, professional psychologists self-report as being eighty percent liberal, with a miniscule number claiming to be conservative. 

Psychopathy is a validated concept, and increased knowledge of psychopathy is useful in recognizing psychopaths and to reduce the destruction that they create.  We have sufficient knowledge of psychopathy to identify those few who are afflicted, and to limit the damage that they have historically done to the vast majority of innocent people.

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