Do corporate leaders share certain psychopathic traits? And if so, can these traits be harnessed to the benefit of both the individual’s organisation and wider society?

Nick Lawrence is on a journey to find out.  A lecturer in business and management at Hallam, his current research focusses on the leadership tendencies of successful psychopaths.  We’ve been speaking with Nick to learn more about his ambition to challenge our perception of psychopathy.

Firstly, what exactly is a psychopath?

This is an interesting question and a good one to start with. One of the challenges facing researchers in the area of successful psychopathy is that there is currently no definitive or agreed upon definition.

From a psychology perspective, psychopaths are people that have a personality disorder characterised by a group of emotional, interpersonal, lifestyle and antisocial tendencies; however, if we then look at current definitions of successful psychopathy, some researchers believe that it is simply a psychopath that has evaded incarceration, while others believe they manipulate people to succeed in society or business.

A few researchers, like myself, believe that some psychopaths can control their maladaptive (negative) tendencies and utilise their adaptive (positive) tendencies to benefit society and organisations.

Do you think this is already happening in the world of corporate leadership?

Evidence demonstrates that those in positions of leadership, whether that is organisations, governments or countries, have a higher probability of psychopathic tendencies. There is a common consensus that 1% of the population are psychopaths. This increases to 4% when we look at those in employment, and to 12% of executive-level managers within a company. I do believe that those possessing adaptive psychopathic tendencies have the drive, determination and skillset to become leaders.

In terms of successful psychopaths, what sort of leadership tendencies are likely to be displayed?

Many of the tendencies successful psychopaths possess lend themselves to the appearance of strong leadership qualities and are considered to be beneficial to organisations, including being innovative, confident, decisive, skilful communicators with excellent presentation skills, and creative and strategic thinkers.

Will you be interviewing self-identifying psychopaths? And if so, can their responses be trusted?

I will be interviewing those that I identify as possessing certain adaptive psychopathic traits, whether they are aware or self-identifying psychopaths will be difficult to ascertain. Some of the challenges facing me when interviewing participants is that those answering the questions need to possess self-awareness, which is not always the case with psychopaths. There is also the possibility that they have a level of intellect that allows them to fake it. To try to mitigate the risk of participants faking it, I will be speaking with other members of the team to get a 360-degree view of the leader being interviewed.

Finally, what real-world impact do you hope your research will make?

I want to encourage a reorientation of our traditional understanding by challenging our current perceptions of psychopathy. A major obstacle of researching leaders with psychopathic tendencies is obtaining access to quality samples of these leaders in corporate environments. I want to break down these barriers and reframe the research as a potential for good rather than being primarily punitive in nature. This will not only broaden our knowledge and understanding of successful psychopathy but also be beneficial to the leaders, their workforce and their organisation as a whole.

Before I can make a real-world impact, however, I need participants, so if anyone is in a leadership position or knows a leader who would like to make a difference, please contact me.

This article was reproduced, with permission, from an interview between Nick Lawrence and Mark Greene (Internal Communications Co-ordinator) which was published on the Staff Intranet.