Psychopaths in the Boardroom (or Parliament)

Psychopaths lack empathy, are pathological liars, have an enormous sense of self-worth, are impulsive, irresponsible and won’t accept responsibility for their own actions.

They make up 1% of the total population, 25% of the criminal population. But do you recognize the traits.  Perhaps in the upper reaches of your corporation or our Governments?

The Psy-Fi Blog in their blog Is your CEO a Psychopath? puts a strong case for as high as 4% of corporate boardrooms have psychopaths as inmates.

Here are some traits to watch out for, or maybe aspire to if you want to make it to the top of the corporate world.

  • They have superficial charm: They are a smooth talker and very charming.
  • They are self-centered and think they are way more important than others, even if in reality they aren’t.
  • They have a need for stimulation and is prone to boredom.
  • Their behavior is deceptive: They lie and cheat without difficulty. They don’t mind being caught.
  • They manipulate others for personal gain.
  • They show little remorse or guilt. Sometimes They’ll say there sorry, just so others will stop bugging her/him.
  • Their emotional response is shallow.
  • They are callous with a lack of empathy. They feels no pity.
  • They lives off others or has a predatory attitude.
  • They have poor self-control.
  • They are promiscuous.
  • They had behavioral problems at an early age already.
  • They lacks the ability to set realistic long term goals.
  • They have an impulsive lifestyle. They are a risk-taker.
  • They behave irresponsibly.
  • They always blame others for their behavior.
  • They can only commit to short term relationships.

As this presentation from the UK’s Institute of Risk Management suggests there are a range of possible problems with psychopaths in the boardroom.  These include risky decision making, unethical behavior and a lack of loyalty to the company and stakeholders: does this sound familiar?  One of the problems with these people is they’re very good at managing upwards – they charm superiors, manipulate peers and abuse subordinates.  Once they get in senior positions it’s easy to see how problems could escalate.

So the argument is that the rise of the mantra of value maximisation, increased corporate instability and the ever increasing turnover of staff has allowed corporate psychopaths to flourish, further reinforced by the desire of the media to find ‘media-friendly CEOs.  Recent examples are the late Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson and Alan Sugar who by all accounts are not cuddly, empathetic leaders. They are ruthless and driven.

And it appears it is fine line between the focused, driven leader and the psychopath.


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Categories: Future of work, Human Resources, Leadership

Author:Ian Gotts

Founder of, tech advisor, investor, speaker and author. Runs on Duracell. Based in San Francisco and in a 747., is the business analysis app designed to support Salesforce #AwesomeAdmins. 100% cloud, it is tightly integrated into Salesforce. Use the free core capabilities to capture business processes and embed them inside objects, with single sign-on.

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10 Comments on “Psychopaths in the Boardroom (or Parliament)”

  1. October 17, 2012 at 6:20 am #

    Ian, you’ve also just described someone with pathological narcissistic disorder. This is much more common that full-blown psychopathic behavior although similarly disruptive to those around them.

    In my experience as a consultant to small businesses, I find a disproportionate number of these types in leadership positions. Why? Because narcissism, as it is often referred, is a compensation for not have sufficient emotional support as a child. Usually, one or more parents made them to feel inadequate and their response is to develop a strategy to force the world to see them as great. What better way to do that than lead your own company. Not to mention that these folks tend not to play very well with others unless they are in control. Most people who suffer from this a physically attractive and they use their ability to seduce others as a jump off point to engage them in their charade.

    Many of these people self-destruct or remain relatively isolated because few people can tolerate them for extended periods of time. But, the 4% you speak of probably fell into favorable circumstances and managed to get past the typical roadblocks.

    • October 18, 2012 at 4:46 am #

      Years ago as a Navy officer I spent time working with the senior staff in Leavenworth, Kansas at the “United States Disciplinary Barracks”…AKA the military’s maximum security prison. There were Canadians there studying psychopathy amongst the prisoners, since the military as a unique set of prisoners at that location (mostly first time offenders but for serious crimes like murder and rape). It was fascinating to talk with them and hear their theories. There’s even a test that scores an individual, but the overall description they used was, “Someone who significantly undervalues others and significantly overvalues themselves.” Interesting.

  2. October 17, 2012 at 8:37 am #


    Thanks, you have put some science behind my observations. Very helpful

  3. October 17, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    Ian, you might be interested to know there is a specific field of study devoted to topics like this. It’s called ponerology and I’ve linked to a very thorough page on the subject. It will really put the pieces of this puzzle together for you I believe.

  4. September 27, 2013 at 6:49 am #

    We have terrible problems with a building company in sweden and am curious to know if corporations and companys can be psychopathic?
    Whats everyones thoughts on this?

    • September 27, 2013 at 8:50 am #

      I think groups of people become a different personality than one person by themselves (mob mentality). Can a group exercise psychopathic behavior? Sure. There are plenty of examples in recent history.

    • September 27, 2013 at 8:58 pm #


      Any human system of any scale, from a family to a company to a government, can become dominated by pathological values. This leads to what is known as a “pathocracy.” I’ve linked my name to a page about pathocracy that might interest you.

      • September 30, 2013 at 10:27 am #

        I understand this. Your making me think of hitler and those that followed his terrible commands.
        What is it though that makes us blind to these people, or that lets us accept this behavior and let it continue?

      • September 30, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

        Hitler’s regime was an example of a pathocracy at the level of a national government.

        As I talk about in my writing, one of the reasons we are blind to these people is that there is a deeply held assumption – one which people like this have every incentive to encourage – that other people are like us. Since we have basic empathy and compassion, we assume everyone else does too, since it’s such a fundamental part of being human.

        Yes the writing is long but hopefully worth the time invested. Thanks Ricky.

      • September 30, 2013 at 10:36 am #

        Thanks for the link within your name. Its fascinating reading.
        I started but its long. I will bookmark this and read it all.

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