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Do psychopaths make good CEOs?

Must thrive in a fast-paced environment. Should be cool under pressure. Ambitious go-getters welcome. You find these clichés in most job descriptions these days. You may have even written one of these descriptions, if you’re hiring. Little did you know that your ideal candidate might well be a psychopath.

That’s right, a psychopath. We associate the term with murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals. Names like John Wayne Gacy, Hannibal Lecter, and Ted Bundy might come to mind. But there’s another side to psychopathy, according to research psychologist Kevin Dutton’s The Wisdom of Psychopaths.

“Psychopaths appear, through some Darwinian practical joke, to possess the very personality characteristics that many of us would die for,” Dutton writes. Exceptional persuasiveness, captivating charm, and razor sharp focus under immense pressure (like war zones) seem to come naturally to psychopaths. Dutton presents a battery of research spanning several centuries to back up this assertion.

He also embarks on an investigative journey into the depths of modern psychopathy, relaying entertaining conversations with researchers, law enforcement agents, and psychopaths themselves. He even participates in an experiment where his brain is electromagnetically induced into functioning — briefly — the way a psychopath’s normally operates.

Dutton’s clearest description of a psychopath comes from Hervey M. Cleckley, an American physician and author of The Mask of Sanity (1941), a seminal work in the study of psychopathy. Paraphrasing Cleckley, Dutton describes this enigmatic character as “an intelligent person, characterized by a poverty of emotions, the absence of shame, egocentricity, superficial charm, lack of guilt, lack of anxiety, immunity to punishment, unpredictability, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, and a transient interpersonal lifestyle.”

Sound like anyone you work with or, perhaps more likely, work for?

Many — but not all — of these qualities are commonly attributed to successful CEOs, surgeons, lawyers, even U.S. presidents. Speaking of presidents, Dutton refers to a 2010 analysis of personality questionnaires researchers had sent to biographers of every single American commander in chief. The results? “A number of U.S. presidents exhibited distinct psychopathic traits, with John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton leading the charge,” Dutton writes.

Another researcher, Robert Hare, sent out a psychopathy checklist test called the PCL-R to over 200 executives in 2010 and compared the results to the overall population. “Not only did the business execs come out ahead, but psychopathy was associated with … charisma … creativity, good strategic thinking, and excellent communication skills,” writes Dutton.

So what, exactly, gives psychopaths such talent, the ability to be cool as a cucumber, even when they are staring death straight in the eye? It comes down to brains, it seems. For most of us, when we are thrown into a stressful situation, whether it’s a high-stakes exam, watching a scary movie, or fighting off an attacker, the parts of the brain that actively respond to pain, panic, and other emotions kick into high gear. For psychopaths, it’s the opposite. They even calm down during these moments of heightened tension.

Essentially, Dutton argues, psychopaths naturally display the kind of emotional self-control that Tibetan monks and elite soldiers spend many years developing. In this respect they seem ideally suited for a cruel, uncertain, dangerous world.

Much like ice cream and great wine, however, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to psychopathy. For all the seemingly “functional” psychopaths out there, there are at least a few serial killers. But what separates the two types? The answer is complicated, but it comes down to a combination of self-control and social abilities. “The fate of a psychopath depends on a whole range of factors, including genes, family background, education, intelligence, and opportunity,” writes Dutton.

So, murder and other violent actions aside, should we all embrace our inner psychopath if we want to get ahead in life? Not quite, but Dutton does offer a few qualities that non-psychopaths should work on if they want to get through life a little easier. They include mental toughness, focus, and mindfulness. Dutton notes that cognitive behavioral therapists have been helping their patients develop these qualities for years now. Buddhists have been on the case for even longer.

Dutton spins a solid yarn, turning what could easily have been a dry survey of psych research into entertainment. At times, he overdoes it. Case in point: “The neural tsunami of madness need not, in other words, wash apocalyptically up on the crystalline shores of logic.” Umm, what?

The argument also gets hazy when Dutton ventures outside his own field of psychology. At one point he suggests that psychopathic traits might be especially relevant in today’s business world, claiming that “the new millennium has seemingly ushered in a wave of corporate criminality like no other.”

For all we know, he might be right, but he backs this massive assumption with nary a statistic or study. We are left in the dark. Sure, we are all raw with the pains of the Great Recession, the scores of corporate scandals and CEO resignations, and the way in which many of the most egregious actors in the run-up to the housing crisis have largely escaped punishment, or even profited. In the absence of data correlating corporate criminality with executive psychopathy, however, we might just as easily argue that reports of wrongdoing are up because of the never-ending news cycle, the expansion of the workforce, and increased sensitivity (among some) to corporate ethics.

Nevertheless, Dutton has a point. With competition in several job markets tightening, a nearing “fiscal cliff” in the U.S., and Europe in a state of painful economic uncertainty, today’s working world can easily feel like a dark place. In such a world, a little psychopathy can go a long way.

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