Psychopaths & sycophants

2007

Far too many organisations are stuffed with sycophants prepared to overlook anything shady, illegal, or unethical as long as they are getting to hang around and share some power. Even if that means pandering to a corporate psychopath.

Leaders need followers, right? It doesn't follow that anyone who doesn't lead is a follower but what if a subset of leaders are psychopathic - or at least antisocial and unburdened by conscience - while a subset of followers are sycophantic - those who are willing to please leaders in exchange for power and privilege, or even the promise or proximity of power and privilege?

What if the two groups are symbiotic? You need those who forgo the respect of self and peers to achieve privilege to be willing to carry out the desires of those psychopaths who have power and no, or little, conscience.

In fact these two groups share much in common. They consider other people and other people's feelings expendable and differ in ways that make them necessary to each other's success.

Identifying psychopaths is both difficult and easy. A mnemonic that can be used to remember the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, ordinarily considered to be the umbrella term that includes psychopaths, is "CORRUPT":

C - cannot follow law
O - obligations ignored
R – remorselessness
R – recklessness
U – underhandedness
P - planning deficit and
T – temper.

Only three or more of these are viewed as necessary to point towards an antisocial personality disorder, so you can assess yourself and anyone else against the seven criteria – none of which require the individual to have killed anyone!

For those who want to delve deeper, you might want to consider Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist, a 20 item evaluation list () that identifies the one per cent of the human race who don't have to struggle with their conscience because it is largely or wholly absent.

Since organisations generally don't screen for such behavioral traits – particularly not for senior leadership positions - they are more often impressed than appalled (or perhaps both) at the decisiveness of such individuals.

It's something that Kurt Vonnegut, an American novelist "known for works blending satire, black comedy, and science fiction", recognized in his book "A Man Without A Country", where he described leaders gathering around them "upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography" plus "most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences".

"Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays" Vonnegut wrote.

PPs get along because they "are presentable" and because "they are so decisive". And. "unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a **** what happens next. Simply can't"

Vonnegut's argument was focused on political leaders but his list of actions that have to be done every single day whatever the cost (and preferably where there is a cost, since the psychopath likes hurting others), is familiar to many who have worked in frenzied environments.

You know, "Do this! Do that! Fire them! Buy ABN Ambro! Sell Orange! Cut Perks! Move the Company HQ! Cut the bottom 10 per cent! Reengineer! Six Sigma! Change! Change! Change!..."

So if Vonnegut was right, or even partially right, that "only nut cases want to be president," to what extent is the same true of corporations?

After all, it is easier to be decisive if you have no empathy for others or fear of consequence. It's also easier to be manipulative if you don't care if you're caught and you get off on the thrill-seeking.

In fact, the more change that is going on, the more fun life is for the psychopath. More sane people need time to think – which leaves them vulnerable to attack - while less attention gets paid to the underlying reasonability and morality of decisions that are being taken.

And how much more so is this if the psychopathic leader is surrounded by sycophants (think Henry Gonzales, embattled US Attorney General, or Harry Whittington, the guy who said how "deeply sorry he was for what US VP Cheney had to go through after Dick had shot Harry in the face).

And just look at all those who are willing to overlook anything shady, illegal, or unethical as long as they are getting to hang around and share some of that power. That's the REAL reason the top team gets spoilt and handpicked.

There's much more to say about the link between psychopaths and sycophants but this is a column not a paper so let's leave it with some questions.

How psychopathic are your leaders? Why not do the test and find out! How sycophantic are his or her nearest supporters? And if you find yourself in a high PS/BS environment – what are you going to do about it?

Being warned is a good start. But what then? Do you pretend to be a psychopath or sycophant, mirroring (but not believing) the behavior that lets people get promoted? Or do you find another way that neutralizes the sickness or simply lets the empathic among us prosper?

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Often wondered why Bush is so 'loyal' to his henchmen even when they are incompetent! Now I know, it makes sense to have people around you who won't question the stuff you do... loyalty back is protection for him.

Ken California

So what is the opposite of a psychopath? And can they be successful as leaders if they make slower decisions and get all choked up with empathy? Do we need low grade pyschos? Or high grade empaths?

Sandra Geneva

We confuse the opposite of a personality disorder with a wimp or coward. This is part of the insanity. I am a tough, confident, non-psychopathic leader and I have one people skill that psychopaths envy. I can relate to people with empathy and get the job done. I'm a tough guy but not a cruel nutcase that enjoys watching my subordinates suffer. I've seen too much of it. There should be a law against this type of sick leadership.

Max Hawaii