The CEO as psychopath

Washington Post

Finally, a business magazine has asked a question on many folks' minds: "Is Your Boss a Psychopath?"

The magazine is Fast Company and its answer to that question is: Yes, your boss might very well be a psychopath. After all, many of America's legendary titans of industry exhibited symptoms of psychopathy -- folks such as Henry Ford, Armand Hammer, even Walt Disney.

Psychopaths are people who are amoral, ruthless, pathologically selfish and utterly unburdened by qualms of conscience. You find a lot of these folks in prisons. You can also find them in corporate boardrooms, the magazine reports.

"I always said that if I wasn't studying psychopaths in prison, I'd do it at the stock exchange," Canadian psychologist Robert Hare told Fast Company.

Hare, 71, is one of the world's foremost experts on psychopaths. He developed the "Psychopathy Checklist," which has been used to diagnose psychopaths for 25 years, and the "P-Scan," which is widely used by police departments to screen out psychopaths among recruits. Hare sees similarities between the psychopaths he has studied -- Mafia hit men and sex offenders -- and the corporate crooks behind the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

"These are callous, coldblooded individuals," he says. "They don't care that you have thoughts and feelings. They have no sense of guilt or remorse."

Hare's view is supported by two studies, including the research of British psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon, who administered personality tests to 39 high-level executives and found them to be egocentric, exploitative and lacking in empathy -- in short, "successful psychopaths."

Whether this boss-as-psychopath theory is sound science is, of course, debatable. But the folks at Fast Company have taken this serious idea and run with it, producing an entertaining eight-page package that includes a goofy quiz on how to tell whether your boss is psycho and a cover portrait of C. Montgomery Burns, the beady-eyed evil capitalist from "The Simpsons" whose credo is "What good is money if it can't inspire terror in your fellow man?"

Best of all are the deliciously nasty mini-portraits of "Bosses From Hell," a category that includes many of America's most famous executives, past and present:

* Ford: "used shadowy henchmen to run 'secret police' who spied on employees ... cheated on his wife with his teenage personal assistant and then had the younger woman marry his chauffeur as a cover."

* Hammer: "bribed his way through the oil business. Laundered money for Soviet spies.... Then promoted himself for the Nobel Peace Prize."

* Disney: "a dictatorial boss who underpaid his workers ... made anti-Semitic smears ... cooperated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy."

* "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop: "His divorce was granted on grounds of 'extreme cruelty.' That's the characteristic that endeared him to Wall Street, which applauded when he fired 11,000 workers at Scott Paper, then another 6,000 (half the labor force) at Sunbeam."

No wonder Hare has created a test to screen potential chief executives for psychopathic behavior before they're hired. "We screen police officers, teachers," he says. "Why not people who are going to handle billions of dollars?"

Well, Alan Deutschman, who wrote the Fast Company story, suggests one good reason why not: Companies would use the test not to weed out psychopaths but to hire them.

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