Leadership is an essential part of strategy execution. But what if the leader who is driving the strategy is on the “dark side”.
What if you ended up with a psychopath for a leader? What are the chances that this can happen? Philippe Persyn gives his insights into the matter.

The Good and the Bad

The majority of humanity has good intentions and behaves accordingly. In my cooperation with clients, I can testify to that. People want and get the best out of themselves if they have the right context and support.

Also, you hear horror stories when it comes to leadership. There’s a claim that there are often psychopaths at the higher levels in organizations.

My interest in this theme started six years ago. When I worked with someone who had psychopathic and narcissistic attributes. Working with such a person is difficult, and it doesn’t make you stronger or better. And that is an understatement.

What is Psychopathy?

Psychopathy is not always straightforward. On the one hand, some people show manipulative and well-considered behavior. On the other hand, you see people who are mainly impulsive and antisocial (Anouk Vermeij et al., Neuropsychology). It is a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. For example, a hard and cold childhood with a lack of empathy).

Research show three distinguishing elements for psychopathy. Daring (for example, interpersonal dominance).  Disinhibition (for instance: impulsive behavior) and meanness (like lack of empathy). (Landay, K; Harms, P.D & Credé M (2019), Shall we serve the dark lords?

You cannot just see whether someone is a psychopath or not. It is essential to take a test if you want to be sure, for example, The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R).

These three elements can make leaders effective. Think of taking risks, not taking others into account, manipulating others. Psychopaths also come across as charming, and they can influence people exceptionally well. In short, psychopathy seems to offer an ideal cocktail for success.

Psychopathy seems to offer an ideal cocktail for success.

Or maybe not?

If you know that only 1% of the population are pure psychopaths, then your chances are small that your boss happens to be a psychopath. In criminal circles, the percentage can be as high as 8% to 25%. But I assume that you don’t work in such an environment.

How to Protect Yourself from the Dark Side

But still, it is possible that he or she – psychopathy occurs in both men and women – does have attributes of a psychopath. If you notice that you are in that case, it is crucial to protect yourself against this behavior.

You can do this by avoiding confrontation. You build a file to defend yourself when needed and especially when you are the victim of manipulation. Since you will not become happier in such a context or even undermine your self-image in the long run, it is better, when you are ready, to step away from it.

In “Is It Me or You? – How Reactions to Abusive Supervision Are Shaped by Leader Behavior and Follower Perceptions” Birgit Schyn and others, indicate that one person (follower) suffers more than the other. But in any case, it is not healthy.

Leadership Effectiveness and the Dark Side?

Finally, people with moderate psychopathic characteristics may come across as more effective in the short term. They are more likely to emerge as leaders, but I do wonder about that in the longer term. In any case, it is not sustainable. Do people really want to work for them?

And as far as my experience is concerned, I stepped away from it. And I didn’t regret that for a moment.

There's a claim that there are often psychopaths at the higher levels in organizations.

Philippe PersynSenior Consultant

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Philippe Persyn

As a Seasoned Human Resources and Change Leader for over 20 years, Philippe has extensive experience of working in organizations in a local and international context. He worked for an IT startup company & JNJ and has built a track record as HR leader. Amongst other topics he has worked on: - the challenge of reconciling high performance and well-being - change in organisations - strategy - team coaching - individual coaching - well-being.

One Comment

  • Kasper Smith says:

    Brilliant observations, Philippe. Many thanks for sharing these thoughts and for referencing scholars on the topic.

    Often we are simply not good enough at registering these dangerous attributes and qualities in leaders and in the worst cases the ‘receivers’ of psychopathic leaders inflict permanent self-damage through excessive self-doubt (why is my work never good enough for this boss?), loss of faith in own abilities (I should have done better) or even existential crisis (I am no longer who I used to be, and I lost track of my values and ethics).

    The cases are many in which the detrimental effects arrive at the emotional doorstep of the employees and they themselves open the door to find themselves of the path of despair, surprised at later stages when they reflect back.

    So, which organisational contextual systems, policies, mechanisms should be put in place to flash out these individuals? Surely, employee Hotlines are a great start but are often too little, too late. Mandatory, annual psychometric exams to ensure the sanctity of healthy, balanced leadership (pass or fail, nothing in between)?…
    Looking forward to discussing the ideas, because surely can and should be done.

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