Leadership Lessons From Psychopaths
Michael Bret Hood, CFE, MBA
   
 
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Michael Bret Hood, CFE, MBA

Financial Crimes & Leadership Instructor, Author, Consultant & Speaker - Retired 25 year FBI Special Agent, ACFE Faculty

            If you could choose a leader, what traits would you want them to possess? Would you want a leader to be self-confident? Would you want a leader to know exactly what to say when you are feeling down? Do you like having a leader who senses when something is wrong with you and reacts in just the manner you need? Do you like leaders who have a certain charisma about them? These are certainly admirable traits in a leader but only 1% of our society has the exact combination we have described. However if we look a little closer at these traits, we might be surprised at who is capable of possessing them.

            According to estimates, psychopaths make up approximately one percent of the world population. In a study of corporate executives on a management track to executive leadership positions, psychiatrists Paul Babiak and Robert Hare measured a three percent rate of psychopaths in the corporate environment, which means that for every one hundred people in your organization, one to three of them, on average, are psychopaths.[1] Remember, real world psychopaths can be vastly different but equally as dangerous as the mythological Hollywood psychopaths such as Hannibal Lecter, Michael Myers, and Jason

            Psychopaths initiate an assessment process as soon as they meet people similar to how we make initial impressions of the people we meet. Whereas we intend to label or identify people, psychopaths look at the person through the lens of utility. What can this person do for me? What if we, as leaders, changed our thought process when meeting people and instead of labeling and identifying, looked at new people to see what kind of utility is within them? What are the talents inside that have yet to be uncovered?

          Psychopaths are also some of the most astute observers in the world. When asked how he picked his criminal victims, notorious serial killer Ted Bundy stated he could see who would make a good victim by the way that person walked. Psychologist Kevin Dutton questioned the belief that psychopaths had such ability so he set up an experiment where five college students would walk on a stage, one of them with a red handkerchief hidden somewhere on their body. The audience consisted of fifteen college students who scored high on the Self-Report Psychopathy Test and they were asked to divine which student had hidden the red handkerchief. Over seventy percent of the students correctly chose which student was secretly carrying the red handkerchief. The study has been repeated on multiple occasions with similar results.[2]

          What if leaders had that same laser-like focus? Imagine how you would feel if your leader knew exactly what you needed at the exact right time? What would it be like if your leader recognized talent in you that you weren’t even aware existed? How much would you appreciate a leader who could see deep inside you and find certain strengths and abilities to which you weren’t necessarily aware? What if that same leader cultivated those strengths by giving you stretch assignments to develop those skills? Would that leader, in turn, make you a better leader in the future?

          Leaders and psychopaths, although they share similar traits, diverge when it comes to followers. Psychopaths need followers in order to extract whatever they can for personal gain while leaders are more interested in helping others reach their potential. Just as we have learned what not to do from the bad bosses in our lives, we can learn lessons from the psychopath’s assessment process and focus on our people so that we can find the places, tasks, and jobs where they are most likely to succeed. How many psychopaths have you come across and what kinds of lessons did you learn?

 

[1] Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York: Regan Books.

 

[2] Dutton, K. (2012). The wisdom of psychopaths: What saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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