22nd January, 2017

To succeed, keep in touch with your inner psychopath

I met an eminent psychiatrist recently who told me about the “dark triad”. This is not a criminal gang, but rather a trifecta of malevolent personality traits possessed by certain individuals — some of whom are in positions of considerable authority.

The three features are narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. Each might be viewed as merely antisocial characteristics, but together they are likely to produce a highly disagreeable person.

However, each is probably necessary to an extent if one is to achieve success in business, or indeed a leading position in almost any walk of life, given the hard choices that have to be made by those who take up such roles.

Moreover, there is no doubt that one of the abiding attributes of any winning boss is the ability to take tough action when necessary.

Last year, because of terrorism, revenues at one of our companies fell suddenly by 40% in one of its main markets. The management did what was necessary for the company to survive: they downsized, shut facilities and took unpleasant and unpopular decisions to cut costs and preserve cash. These were absolutely the correct decisions for the sake of the whole organisation — but they also involved pain.

You don’t have to be narcissistic, Machiavellian or psychopathic to carry out such tasks. But if you are too conscientious, sentimental or sociable, you’re unlikely to take the emergency steps required in a crisis. And unfortunately economic cycles and the nature of capitalism mean that disruption, uncertainty and ferocious competition are almost inevitable.

Anyone who takes charge makes mistakes; it goes with the territory. Over-sensitive managers racked by guilt and anxiety over their errors are unlikely to cope with the pressure of the job. Be they politicians, entrepreneurs or generals, only those with a blistering focus on their goals and ruthless determination are likely to rise to the top.

My middle name is Oliver; I was christened after the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Oliver Cromwell. I have always admired him, and hanging in our loo is a copy of the best short speech ever given, which Cromwell delivered when he dissolved the “long parliament”.

He was an outstanding military commander, a “hero of liberty” to some, and in 2002 was voted one of the 10 greatest Britons in a BBC poll. But his hard-hearted treatment of the Catholics in Ireland and Scotland, and his execution of King Charles I, mean many think of him as a brutal dictator.

He surely had the dark triad complex, with all its flaws.

Unfortunately, some of those who have the dark triad rise to power but use it entirely for selfish means. They manipulate and exploit, but produce no public or even private good of any kind. For decades I have worked with and written about entrepreneurs and chief executives, and none I have known are saintly.

A proportion would score highly on the dark triad rating system. Most of this small sub-set are liars, fantasists and monstrous egotists with no remorse, and a few are fraudsters. Often, the achievements of those with pronounced dark triad inclinations are only short-lived, because their pathologies are reinforced by advancement. As a consequence, their bad behaviour eventually leads to their downfall.

Dark triad bosses are more likely to manage using fear, division and threats. They thrive on factionalism and office politics. Their policies are largely
self-serving, rather than in the interests of the greater entity. A surprising number of organisations are actually run along these lines, but such tactics are inevitably less effective than motivating a team using positive inspiration.

Pathological symptoms are common among powerful men. Tosh McDonald, president of the train drivers’ union Aslef, said last week he used to set his alarm early so he could hate Margaret Thatcher for an extra hour each day.

Possessors of the dark triad can apparently be discovered using the “dirty dozen” questions devised by psychologists — assuming they provide honest answers, which might be optimistic. I suspect most of us who are ambitious and strive to do well in our careers would score pretty highly on some of the questions. For example, “I want others to admire me”, “I seek prestige and status”, “I want others to pay attention to me”, or even “I tend to be cynical”. I suppose it is all a matter of degree. Perhaps, as part of the recruitment process, all chief executives should be assessed using this questionnaire in a psychometric test.

A related concept is the “big five” model of the human psyche. This measures mainstream characteristics, rather than malicious ones. The five factors are openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism. In my experience, the first two are strongly represented among a substantial majority of entrepreneurs — in other words, being opportunistic and socially outgoing.

Naturally we prefer to think of society’s leaders in positive terms — their courage, intelligence, integrity, charisma and so on.

But these qualities are probably not enough. It may be that even the greatest chiefs need some darker aspects too.