Skip to Content

Power Sheet: Why Great Presidents Often Are Psychopaths

What do these presidents have in common? Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy. When I saw that question posed by University of California Irvine neuroscientist James Fallon, my response was that they were the three most popular presidents of the 20th century.

Now what about Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush? All markedly less popular – each lost his bid for re-election. What I didn’t know is that biographers of each president had been asked to rate their subjects on a standardized assessment of psychopathic traits. Those first three super-popular presidents ranked No. 1, 2, and 3; they were America’s most psychopathic presidents. The three who couldn’t win a second term ranked among the least psychopathic.

It isn’t even Labor Day yet, and already supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are calling their opponent a psychopath; just Google “Trump psychopath” or “Clinton psychopath” for an ever-lengthening list of examples. But maybe all those fierce partisans should be applying the term admiringly to their own candidate. Oxford University psychologist Kevin Dutton argues that psychopathic traits are common in successful leaders and in fact help them do their jobs. His argument in the new Scientific American Brain is here, but you have to pay to read the whole thing; a good synopsis is here.

While we all use the term “psychopath” as a hard-fisted pejorative, it’s more complicated. Dutton even wrote a book called The Wisdom of Psychopaths. So what does the term really mean? To summarize as severely as possible, here are the eight traits that psychologists measure in identifying psychopathy: social influence, fearlessness, stress immunity, Machiavellian egocentricity, rebellious non-conformity, blame externalization, carefree nonplanfulness, and coldheartedness. It’s obvious how some of those traits (social influence, fearlessness, rebellious non-conformity) could help a leader attract followers. Other traits (stress immunity, coldheartedness) are clearly helpful to someone making the brutally hard decisions that leaders face.

The uncomfortable bottom line is that “psychopathic traits are pretty well represented in politicians and world leaders,” says Dutton. They not only help leaders respond to “all sorts of nasty kinds of crisis,” they also help them achieve high office. Political leaders “have to be pretty confident to run for office at all,” Dutton says. “They have to be very good at presenting themselves in a certain light. And they have to be very persuasive and manipulative.”

For what it’s worth, Dutton asked an unnamed “seasoned political reporter” to complete the eight-trait assessment for some of the U.S. presidential candidates. Both Trump and Clinton ranked in the top 20% for psychopathy, Trump higher; Clinton was about even with Ted Cruz.

Now your assignments, in order of increasing difficulty: Practice saying “My candidate is a psychopath. And that’s okay.” Estimate where your boss and spouse or other life partner rank on the psychopath spectrum. Then estimate where you rank, and ponder what that may mean for you as a leader.

You can share Power Sheet with friends and followers here.

What We’re Reading Today

Curiosity builds over U.S. swimmers’ robbery story 
Two U.S. Olympic swimmers, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz, were not allowed to board their plane last night, which was heading back to the U.S. from Brazil. The two were among a group of four swimmers that included 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, who say they were robbed at gunpoint. Brazilian police, however, question the account. Lochte, who returned to the U.S. on Monday, recounted the story to Matt Lauer, saying that the four were robbed at gunpoint. Some of the details, though, had changed from his original telling.  CNN

GE embraces coal again
For a number of years, Jeff Immelt‘s company prepared investors for the move away from coal and into natural gas, encouraging investments in cleaner energy. But now, by building plants in emerging economies, like India, and updating them in the U.S. and Europe, GE is embracing coal again. It bought Alstrom’s power business last year for $10 billion, which doubled its fleet of large coal plant turbines. WSJ

SolarCity cuts back
As demand for roof panels falls this year, SolarCity announced that it would cut jobs. While it didn’t specify the number of jobs that would be cut, it will set aside $3-to-$5 million for the layoffs. SolarCity will also reduce pay for its CEO Lyndon Rive and CTO Peter Rive to $1. The moves come as Elon Musk‘s Tesla plans to take over the company.  USA Today

Companies doing good
More and more companies are tackling large, social, economic and environmental issues than ever before. But it’s not just out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re making money while doing it. In Fortune‘s annual list of companies that Change the World, Andrew Witty‘s GlaxoSmithKline came in at number one, due to its work making drugs more accessible in poor nations.  Fortune

Building a Better Leader

Millennials are more likely to view themselves as…
…”work martyrs” than older employees. They were more likely to agree with a statement like “I feel guilty for using my paid time off,” and they want bosses to recognize it.  Harvard Business Review

In order to keep your job as robots take over…
…embrace learning. Your education no longer ends when you graduate college, and the future workforce will need to look at “reskilling” as a continual investment. Fortune

One reason employees feel like they’re underpaid…
…is because no one discusses salaries, so they’re unsure about how they compare. Instead, bosses should embrace being transparent about pay, then provide continual feedback to give employees an understanding of where their skills need to improve. Entrepreneur

Oversight Obstacles

Citi CEO is developing new benchmarks
Facing backlash from investors wanting a turnaround at Citigroup, CEO Michael Corbat is developing new targets to be released later this year. But to set these targets, he needs further patience from investors. And Corbat has been limited in what he can do, due to the oversight and regulations placed on the company by the Federal Reserve. Reuters

MetLife’s argument to fight ‘too big to fail’ status
MetLife won a case against U.S. regulators this spring, arguing that it shouldn’t have the ‘too big to fail’ status, which restricts the company’s ability to maneuver due to the capital reserve requirements. But regulators appealed the decision to U.S. District Court. Steven Kandarian‘s company will argue that regulators should judge based on an “activity-based approach,” meaning, risky activity would be regulated. It’s what theFinancial Stability Oversight Council uses for overseeing asset managers, according to MetLife. Fortune

Aetna threatened U.S. regulators…
…saying that if they block its attempt to merge with Humana, it would reduce its Obamacare exchange presence. Mark Bertolini‘s Aetna will no longer provide plans in 11 of the 15 states it had offered insurance via exchanges; antitrust regulators rejected the Humana merger a few weeks ago. Aetna said it was the rising costs to service the plans that led to the decision, but this letter brings the motive in doubt. NPR

Up or Out

Gerald Cooper has resigned as UBS’s global co-head of secondary market advisory.  Fortune

Deutsche Bank Asset Management has named John Burns its new global CIO.  WSJ

Fortune Reads and Videos

Uber buys self-driving truck startup
Otto, created by four former Googlers, built a kit that allows a big-rig to drive autonomously while on highways. Fortune

The one studio that hasn’t fallen prey to box office flops this summer…
…is Walt Disney. It’s the only studio with more than $1 billion in domestic summer gross; Warner Bros. is second with just north of $750 million. Fortune

Walmart’s efforts to encourage more shoppers…
…including implementing smaller stores, seems to have caught on. Its comparable store sales jumped 1.6% in its most recent quarter. Fortune

Vince McMahon sold 1.55 million WWE shares
It was part of his estate planning, and McMahon still has majority ownership with a 47% stake.  Fortune

Quote of the Day

“Our analysis to date makes clear that if the deal were challenged and/or blocked we would need to take immediate actions to mitigate public exchange and ACA small group losses. Specifically, if the DOJ sues to enjoin the transaction, we will immediately take action to reduce our 2017 exchange footprint.” – Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, in a letter to the Justice Department, urging regulators to approve a merger with Humana.  NPR

Share Today’s Power Sheet:

Produced by Ryan Derousseau