Management and leadership roles have always attracted narcissists or corporate psychopaths. Research demonstrates that while 1% of the general population is psychopathic, that rate quadruples for those in management positions. The banking crisis had hopefully cleared a lot of them out. But just when you thought it was safe, yet another senior figure emerges who seems to have led an otherwise sound institution to its ruin – in this case Paul Flowers and the Co-op Bank. But how is this relevant to the rest of us swimming in the corporate sea?
First we need to be able to spot the bad guys, which is not always easy. Although corporate psychopaths are generally amoral, focused on power and pleasure, and aggressive, they can also be intelligent, charming and able to project a compelling but false image. And where profit and growth are a predominant corporate value, such people can thrive.
However, not all corporate destroyers are psychologically flawed in this way. Sometimes, they just find it hard to apply sufficient self-control. Although managers are all supposed to be ‘grown up’, childishness and immature behaviours remain. We sulk and can be defensive, self-indulgent, mischievous and playful. We also do things that we know to be wrong or inappropriately risky. Just think of the last time you broke the Highway Code or promised yourself that you would exercise more, turn up to meetings on time, listen actively, and so on.
Of course, we are unlikely to ever know whether Paul Flowers is a corporate psychopath or merely someone who found it hard to control the child inside himself. What he serves to remind us is that we should be alert to the differences and react accordingly.
Corporate psychopaths should be avoided and removed. Although they may have drive, charisma and will claim to deliver, in the long run they are likely to disappoint. In extreme cases, they will destroy. Watch out for those that over-sell and malign colleagues when being interviewed for a senior position.
Those that inappropriately give-in to the child inside should be faced with their behaviour and reminded of their responsibilities. Being ‘adult’ is never easy. So being reminded on a regular basis what a leader or a manager’s responsibilities are is important. The question this poses is:
How prominent in your thoughts are your responsibilities as a leader?
Everyone needs both someone to remind them and a way of making it easy for them to do so.
 Babiak P, Neumann CS and Hare RD, ‘Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk’ in Behavioral Sciences & the Law. Mar-Apr 2010, pp 174-93