Psychopaths and CEOs

Many times a business leader is said to have a “killer instinct.” But does he really? Does climbing to the top of that slippery pole really take ruthlessness and a cold-blooded urge to win? After generations of muttering and whispers, some scientific research has shown that you don’t need to be Jack the Ripper to run a billion-dollar enterprise, but you will share much of his personality.

Back in 2005, researchers Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon studied the personality profiles of three groups: business leaders, psychiatric patients and criminals hospitalized because of psychiatric illnesses.  Their work showed that the psychological profile of business managers matched rather well the profile of hospitalized criminals. The areas of empathy (or rather lack thereof), charm, ego, independence and focus were very similar. The more violent aspects of personality were the only major differences. Pretty unsettling, isn't it?

Other studies have found that there is very little difference in compassion and empathy between a serial killer and a top-flight surgeon. The very attributes of fearlessness, confidence and ruthlessness that are critical to a surgeon are equally present in an institutionalized murderer. The difference is (only) in the attitude toward violence.

Politicians and serial killers share the same charm, willingness to manipulate others and inflated self-worth. They differ in their sense of ultimate consequence and anticipation of the future. It is no wonder that world leaders sometimes veer off onto terrible courses of war and inhumanity.

So, are all successful leaders and managers one step away from heinous things? Of course not. The sense of other, the realization of one’s impact on society, and the acceptance of ultimate consequence will usually prevail. But as the chestnut says, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Watch your boss.


  1. Killer instinct to kill their competitors in a good way.

  2. My question: is this also true in a communist Chinese setting, or only a characteristic of the new successor to Capitalism the Corporatism that has taken over America today?