Anyone who has worked with a CEO may not be surprised that many of them have common personality traits such as charisma, fearlessness, and a cool head under stress.
However, while these sound like advantages, it has also been suggested that CEOs are more likely to be psychopaths.
According to Dr Tara Swart, neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and Neuroscientist in Residence at the Corinthia Hotel, psychopathy is a spectrum, and we all fall on it somewhere. However, what separates us from the psychopaths is the ability to feel empathy.
A psychopathic diagnosis requires a lot of boxes to be ticked, such as ruthlessness, narcissism, persuasiveness, the inability to feel guilt, or the inability to see things from another person’s perspective.
They also have something called a “resilience to chaos.”
“Psychopaths thrive on chaos, and they know other people find it very stressful,” Swart said on Thursday at an event called The Dark Side of Leadership, held at The Corinthia. “They will purposefully create chaos in the environment because they find it easier to cope than other people.”
Psychopaths make up roughly 1% of the population, but this is very much an estimate due to the complexity of the diagnosis. What is known is that they are found among a range of people, from con-men to world leaders, and up to 90% of prisoners show signs of psychopathy.
Nature vs. nurture
What makes some psychopaths successful and others turn to a life of crime is determined by a number of things.
IQ and education is one part of it, but it’s important to note that the average IQ of serial killers is 94.7 — a fairly normal score. However, people who go down the dark road are less likely to have received a good education, and may have had traumatic family experiences.
The brain of a psychopath is also very immature. In fact, Swart showed a photo of the neuropathways of a typical psychopathic brain, and it functions similarly to a very immature, adolescent one. The limbic system — the part of the brain associated with bonding, emotion, and memory — in particular is damaged, and not at the stage it should be.
It’s as though the part of the brain which holds your “pause button” didn’t develop properly. Rather than pausing in situations to think about other people, psychopaths are more likely to make rash, impulsive decisions.
There is a theory that this could be a result of traumatic brain injury. Many serial killers experienced head injuries as a child, and about 72% had a problem with substance abuse.
Sociological differences can also trigger people in different ways. According to Swart, many psychopathic CEOs she has worked with were sent off to boarding school at a young age, and experienced institutionalised humiliation and violence during their time there.
Is there a cure?
“The way that I’d describe the spectrum of psychopathic traits is like knobs you can turn up and down,” Swart said. “What tends to happen in lawyers and surgeons is they have turned up the ones that are really vital to being a good lawyer or surgeon and turned down the ones that aren’t as helpful.”
As a psychiatrist, Swart also worked with prisoners, and saw first-hand how rapists learned to have remorse for what they had done.
“If they could do that, absolutely, any CEO or leader who has a few traits can do something about it,” she said. “It’s difficult to unlearn habits that you’ve already got in your brain — it’s better to overwrite them with new desired behaviours, and that’s the style I take in my work.”
However, the person has to realise they have a problem, or any attempts to make them better will have even less of a chance of working.
“You’ve got to be aware of it,” Swart said. “Having a relationship of trust and a bond with someone can change everything. So, a coaching relationship should be one of trust, and it should be one where the person sees you demonstrate empathy, and wants to learn to do that for themselves.”
If you’d like to see whether you have psychopathic traits, you can take a test created by psychologist Professor Kevin Dutton here.