DOES IT PAY TO BE A PSY­CHOPATH?

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Jes­sica Hub­bard jes­sicah@fin­week.co.za

We all know that to get to the top – whether it is in fi­nance or For­mula 1 – you need t hat kil l er in­stinct. You need the abil­ity to edge out your ri­val at the last bend, or ne­go­ti­ate be­hind the scenes to close multi­bil­lion­rand deals. As many psy­chol­ogy gu­rus have pointed out, this killer in­stinct is as­so­ci­ated with a very par­tic­u­lar kind of per­son – one whose drive and am­bi­tion pro­pels them to break bound­aries, some­times, moral bound­aries. In­deed, this fierce drive can be symp­to­matic of a men­tal con­di­tion that many be­lieve is most com­mon among highly suc­cess­ful busi­ness peo­ple.

In case you’re con­fused, we’re talk­ing about an­ti­so­cial per­son­al­ity dis­or­der which, to the av­er­age Joe, trans­lates into some­one a lit­tle on the crazy side, or, a psy­chopath. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( WHO), the key fea­tures of this dis­or­der are: (1) an­tag­o­nism (which in­cludes ma­nip­u­la­tion, cal­lous­ness, de­ceit­ful­ness, and hos­til­ity), and (2) dis­in­hi­bi­tion (which in­cludes risk-tak­ing, im­pul­siv­ity, and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity). Psy­chopaths are there­fore hell-bent on scor­ing short-term gains and mak­ing the ‘quick killing’, as op­posed to plan­ning for the long term.

Now wait a minute… does that not sound like a de­scrip­tion of how some of the world’s most pow­er­ful f inan­cial houses and com­pa­nies are run? Play­ing fi­nan­cial Rus­sian roulette with risk-laden de­riv­a­tives, murky hedge funds, and ex­ploit­ing the vul­ner­a­ble with reck­less, un­se­cured lend­ing can all very com­fort­ably fall into the cat­e­gory of im­pul­sive, psy­cho­pathic be­hav­iour.

As Dr Gavin Price, who teaches on lead­er­ship and ethics at GIBS, points out, the par­al­lel drawn be­tween psy­cho­pathic be­hav­iour and lead­ing CEOs and fi­nan­cial wizards is not a new one and, in many ways, can be viewed as an unf lat­ter­ing re­flec­tion of mod­ern busi­ness and the kind of be­hav­iours it both re­wards and en­cour­ages.

“There is le­git­i­mate ev­i­dence that supports the idea that CEOs have psy­cho­pathic ten­den­cies, which stems from the fact that the Di­ag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­ual of Men­tal Dis­or­ders (DSM) has a check­list for di­ag­nos­ing psy­cho­pathic dis­or­ders, and CEOs tick most of the [an­ti­so­cial per­son­al­ity dis­or­der] boxes,” Price ex­plains. “This is not to say that ev­ery CEO is a psy­chopath, just that there are of­ten strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in the per­son­al­ity pro­files.”

It should come as no sur­prise then, that books such as Kevin Dut­ton’s The Wis­dom of Psy­chopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Se­rial Killers Can Teach Us About Suc­cess, and busi­ness blogs are spread­ing the idea that there are cer­tain jobs that at­tract lit­eral psy­chopaths – and lead­ing multi­bil­lion dol­lar com­pa­nies and high-pow­ered fi­nan­cial houses are un­doubt­edly among them.

“A num­ber of psy­cho­pathic at­tributes [are] ac­tu­ally more com­mon in busi­ness lead­ers than in so-called dis­turbed crim­i­nals – at­tributes such as su­per­fi­cial charm, ego­cen­tric­ity, per­sua­sive­ness, lack of em­pa­thy, in­de­pen­dence, and fo­cus,” au­thor Kevin Dut­ton ex­plains in the book.

So, is there re­ally such a f ine l ine be­tween some of our most es­teemed busi­ness lead­ers – whom many as­pire to em­u­late – and de­spised con­men like Bernie Mad­off who pil­fer money from pen­sion­ers? And, if so, should we re­ally be as­pir­ing to be­come yet another cut-throat CEO or hedge fund man­ager?

Cyn­thia Schoe­man, MD of lo­cal con­sult­ing firm Ethics Mon­i­tor, ar­gues that the an­swer to the f irst ques­tion is a straight­for­ward ‘yes’.

“In­tel­li­gence, am­bi­tion, charm, drive… th­ese are all com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics in both suc­cess­ful con­men and re­spected CEOs,” she ex­plains. “With the for­mer, how­ever, you are just re­mov­ing the ethics part.”

En­cour­ag­ingly, Schoe­man be­lieves that CEOs with­out ethics (po­ten­tial con­men, that is) have less and less room to ma­noeu­vre, be­cause busi­ness is un­der­go­ing a pro­found shift from be­ing reck­less and profit driven – no mat­ter the cost to so­ci­ety and en­vi­ron­ment – to­wards more ‘re­spon­si­ble cap­i­tal­ism’.

Schoe­man points to the count­less lobby groups, global NGOs and fierce en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates, the In­ter­net, and new laws such as the Com­pa­nies Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Re­form and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act in the US – all of which are forc­ing CEOs and the com­pa­nies they lead to be­come more ac­count­able. And the ma­jor­ity of them are be­gin­ning to toe the line.

Whether this is be­cause lead­ers be­lieve in ‘do­ing the right thing’, or be­cause be­ing re­spon­si­ble and eth­i­cal is be­com­ing a busi­ness im­per­a­tive, is ir­rel­e­vant, Schoe­man ar­gues. The key point is that the trans­for­ma­tion is hap­pen­ing.

For those who do pos­sess the killer in­stinct then, th­ese days it is per­haps best (and most prof­itably) paired with a gen­er­ous dose of so­cial con­scious­ness.

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