CEO’s. Visionary, confident maybe even vain, sometimes overbearing. Focused, if not driven, impulsive. Charismatic. Both superficially charming and casually cruel, certainly not above manipulation, even deceit. These are the people who’ll tell you to cut a corner or two because that profitable end justifies a lot of questionable means.
These are the manifestations of—psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism. They’re known as the “dark triad.” But some of the dark qualities may actually be necessary to get the job done.
Apple’s iPad met some internal resistance. The screen was too large. The device was too bulky. Apple was reaping the financial rewards from the first iPhone, so why take a chance on rolling out a similar device and calling it an iPad?
Because CEO Steve Jobs said so. And he was known to run over a few folks on the way to realizing his vision.
Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, but it’s also one of the best cloud computing companies in the world. The company spent years of research in developing an infrastructure for cloud computing—enabling consumers to shop easier from their desktops, laptops, or cellular devices. But all members of Amazon’s executive team didn’t originally agree with the strategy. They didn’t see the value of using cloud computing and big data to expand the way they did business.
CEO Jeff Bezos did.
Today, Apple and Amazon are powerful symbols of corporate USA—built by visionaries confident in their ideas, driven to personal and corporate success, resilient in the face of obstacles.
But are such visionaries psychopathic? Forbes recently reported that nearly 20 percent of CEOs in the U.S. have psychopathic tendencies.
It’s easy to toss around words such as “psycho” as catch-all derogatory terms, but for a more accurate insight, it is useful to understand the series of traits in that “dark triad.” Psychopathy involves a blend of emotional, interpersonal, and behavioral deficits. Narcissism features an overblown, grandiose sense of self-worth and entitlement. Characteristics of Machiavellianism include a superficial charm, ruthlessness, and ready use of deceit and interpersonal manipulation.
As Harbert College faculty discuss below, sometimes aspects of the dark triad are successful in the business world. At Apple and Amazon, having relentless, hard-charging individuals at the helm worked out just fine.
“When you have this personality, you have stronger persuasive power to make sure the company is moving in the direction you want your company to go,” says Lei Huang, Harbert College assistant professor of management. “When narcissistic people have failures, they resist the critiques and naturally think that they will bounce back. When you look at 2008, 2009, and 2010, those three years of severe financial crises, some companies thrived. Many times it was because they had a very confident, yet potentially psychopathic and narcissistic CEO.”
Jeremy Mackey, assistant professor of management, agrees that CEOs with psychopathic tendencies can be good for an organization that is focused solely on the bottom line “as long as there is a system of checks and balances in the top management team to ensure that psychopathic CEOs’ messages are communicated in appropriate ways.”
Mackey notes that such aggressive personality traits are sometimes necessary for businessmen or businesswomen to reach the pinnacle of their careers. “Psychopathic tendencies can be useful for potential CEOs as they climb the corporate ladder because psychopathy is associated with self-promotion, assertiveness and risk-taking—which likely are necessary to elevate a leader to the position of CEO,” he adds. “Psychopathy is also associated with impulsivity and lack of empathy.”
In other words, they have no problem stabbing a back or two along the way. Understudies can feel like numbers rather than people at times. “Psychopathic tendencies likely enable CEOs to view decisions in the workplace as business decisions ahead of personal decisions,” Mackey says. “This can enable them to do what they believe is in the best interest of their organization instead of acting on emotion.”
This paints a picture of a cold human being focused on corporate success and pleasing only his or her board of directors and shareholders.
“These tendencies can harm CEOs’ abilities to build meaningful social relationships,” Mackey says. “Further, psychopathy is associated with bullying and revenge-seeking, so psychopaths might retaliate against those who do not agree with them (‘My Way or the Highway’).”
Huang, however, reports that there are two types of narcissistic CEOs. One steps on subordinates. The other doesn’t. “One type of narcissist is extremely self-centered, extremely confident and demand admiration and respect from people,” he says. “They really do not care what people think. All they care about is their own, personal success.
“The other type of narcissist is really quite interesting. They have all of these qualities, or non-qualities, but they actually care about their reputation among people. They want to associate themselves with positive things.”
Imagine a narcissistic CEO who depends on the success of his or her own employees, but is hated and feared in the corporation. What are the odds that company succeeds? Not good. That’s why, Huang says, “certain tactics” are used by some psychopathic, narcissistic CEOs to boost morale and their own personal standing in the workplace.
“Steve Jobs is the perfect narcissistic example of this,” Huang says. “He had a lot of great ideas, the iPhone, iPad—and in his second term with the company, it was how to handle people. He consulted with his people. He asked them what they thought. At the end of the day, did he make decisions based on their suggestions? Probably not. But he gave people the chance to speak up.“He was a strategic, smarter, sensitive narcissist. He made people feel better about themselves.”
Huang says some narcissistic, psychopathic CEOs don’t outwardly display the stereotypes with which they are associated. Like a disingenuous politician fishing for votes, they play to their employees. “Narcissistic leaders sometimes write thank-you notes to employees in a way that makes them feel that their contribution to the company was much larger than it actually was,” he says. “They will exaggerate and use terms and phrases that emphasize how important the employee’s contribution to the company really was. They use phrases like, ‘You are amazing!’ ‘Your contribution was massive!’ It makes the person feel important and that they mean something. They feel valuable, even if they really aren’t and even if the CEO knows it.”
This CEO manipulates subordinates into believing he or she is personable and charismatic. “A lot of CEOs can be very successful if they are sensitive to their environment, they care what other people think about them and use this to their advantages in order to get their objectives accomplished,” Huang says.
Working with or for a psychopathic CEO is one thing. Doing business with one is another. Bob Broadway, CEO of The Broadway Group in Huntsville, Alabama, who earned graduate and undergraduate degrees at Harbert College, says it’s best “to stroke their ego.”
He also believes that most CEOs with psychopathic tendencies will not be successful in the long run. Why? They lack the attributes of a great leader: role models, visionaries, integrity beyond reproach, cognizant of character, committed to the organization, and believers in the value of surrounding themselves with good people.
“Most CEOs with psychopathic tendencies are not going to have some of those good things,” he says. “They are probably not a good role model. They don’t want their employees acting in the same manner and acting like they are. If you’ve got a CEO always seeking attention and wanting recognition, that’s not a company’s end-goal. That’s just a byproduct. If you’re in business to seek out those types of things, you won’t be successful.”
Broadway notes that many CEOs with narcissistic or psychopathic behaviors don’t build good staffs because of their own demeanor. “You’re not going to have a lot of people who will want to follow you,” he says. “Obviously, you want leaders to follow you. In this case, you will wind up having followers follow you, not (future) leaders. You don’t grow that way, and these followers are not going to be your CEOs
Some of the world’s greatest and most influential companies have been run by psychopathic CEOs. Some have also run organizations into the ground. Which is best for your organization? What is that fine line between the aggressive, profit-driven, uncaring, pushy psychopath, and simply a great leader?
“Machiavellian CEOs,” Mackey says. “Machiavellians likely engage in many of the same behaviors as psychopaths, but use calculated decision-making instead of impulsive decision-making. They also tend to thrive better in society than psychopaths because they can form relationships with others due to their belief in personal manipulation as the primary key to success.”
Huang says the best bet for an organization’s CEO personality type likely depends on its situation and need.
“If your business is slowly moving forward, then you probably need a very decisive person with a vision for the future to change things,” he says. “If you are already enjoying 20 to 30 percent annual growth, then you might not want any type of disruptive forces coming in.” HM