Working in highly competitive Silicon Valley, I've often thought that some of the most successful corporate executives—had they lived in another time and place—could well have been successful mafia dons, munition makers and suppliers to royal armies, or perhaps colonial administrators in charge of tax collection. What I imagine they share is a certain quality of mind: being ruthless, charming, focused, goal oriented, driven, able to project authority and inspire loyalty, and, above all, relatively impervious to moral doubt. A potent brew for sure but a new article suggests that many corporate executives resemble psychopaths more than one might think!
The question of what it takes to succeed in a given profession, to deliver the goods and get the job done, is not all that difficult when it comes down to it. Alongside the dedicated skill set necessary to perform one's specific duties—in law, in business, in whatever field of endeavor you care to mention—exists a selection of traits that code for high achievement.
In 2005 Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon, then at the University of Surrey in England, conducted a survey to find out precisely what it was that made business leaders tick. What, they wanted to know, were the key facets of personality that separated those who turn left when boarding an airplane from those who turn right?
Board and Fritzon took three groups—business managers, psychiatric patients and hospitalized criminals (those who were psychopathic and those suffering from other psychiatric illnesses)—and compared how they fared on a psychological profiling test.
Their analysis revealed that a number of psychopathic attributes were 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. The main difference between the groups was in the more “antisocial” aspects of the syndrome: the criminals' lawbreaking, physical aggression and impulsivity dials (to return to our analogy of earlier) were cranked up higher. Other studies seem to confirm the “mixing deck” picture: that the border between functional and dysfunctional psychopathy depends not on the presence of psychopathic attributes per se but rather on their levels and the way they are combined.