Hannibal Lecter in the Corner Office

Hannibal Lecter in the Corner Office

And you thought psychopaths are happiest going about being serial killers? A recent study by New York psychologist Paul Babiak claims that one out of every 25 business leaders could be psychopathic. “We have identified individuals that might be labeled ‘the successful psychopath’," says Babiak. “Part of the problem is that the very things we’re looking for in our leaders, the psychopath can easily mimic."

Of course, many of us may not be surprised by this conclusion at all; in fact, some of us may believe that one out of 25 is a gross underestimation. But now, at last, we have some science to confirm our hunches.

Psychopathy is characterised primarily by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentricity, and deceptiveness. It’s associated with narcissistic personality disorder — a self-centred preoccupation with power, prestige and vanity — and histrionic personality disorder — excessive attention-seeking, continuous longing for appreciation, and persistent manipulative behaviour.

Apparently, that sort of stuff works wonders in a business environment. The natural tendency of the psychopath across the corridor from your cubicle is to be charming: he can charm the pants off superiors and subordinates, and, as Babiak puts it, “couch (that charm) in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership." Ah, so jargon helps too.

To a psychopath—devoid of any moral instincts and unable to ever feel what you are feeling—whatever you tell him, confide in him, your body language—everything—is just information that helps him know your inner thoughts, get under your skin, and manipulate you. Naturally, he comes across as someone you can trust and should be loyal to. So he uses you to get ahead, and can betray you and walk away without a second thought. Meanwhile, in the eyes of the world, he is charismatic and commands respect. He even has the natural ability to connect random facts and spin a great story that seems like “vision". And everyone’s a sucker for “vision".

Is there any hope? Well, the psychopath is usually great at climbing the corporate ladder, but severely lacks real managerial ability. For, he is essentially a mimic who thrives by shifting shape to meet his needs, but as far as actual performance goes, he remains an empty shell. But by the time people start suspecting that something’s wrong, he may have already moved into the corner office, and the trail of deceit and duplicity he has left behind is hard to track. And once he’s got the top job, all you can do is make a beeline for the lifeboats.

If, that is, you’ve figured it out. And if you can’t — apparently it’s extremely difficult to distinguish a psychopath from a truly talented leader — just thank your stars that your boss is too busy ruining your firm, and doesn’t have the time to eat your liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti, as Hannibal Lecter did to the census taker.