Well, it seemed a good idea at the time
2 October 2014 16:21 (South Africa)
Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys

Beware the Psychopaths

  • Johann Redelinghuys
You find them in business and politics. They are smooth, charming and persuasive. Sometimes they project an image of caring. Sometimes they shy away from the spotlight. But the only thing they are really interested in is power.

History is littered with elected leaders who, once they are in positions of power, end up being uncaring ego-maniacs who manipulate and do dirty deals for their own benefit. Famous psychopaths and evil leaders like Hitler, among many others, who were elected leaders, and were in their positions with the support of their people.

On the face of it, psychopaths are often charming, outgoing people, who are eager to make a positive impression. But these behaviours are imitations of what they know to be socially acceptable: the so-called mask of sanity. The clinical checklist for psychopathy refers to “glib and superficial charm, grandiosity, need for stimulation, pathological lying, conning and manipulating, lack of remorse, callousness, poor behaviour controls, impulsivity irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions”, et cetera.

You may think that sounds like some of the politicians we know. The Human Capital and Management Library says: “High-functioning psychopaths...tend to rule the world. They rise to the highest levels of power in politics and business.”

Dr David Mashburn says “high-functioning psychopaths can be very successful. They appear to be confident and calm and seem to have their act together. The defining characteristic is that they are insatiable liars and skilled manipulators.”

It’s appropriate that we should be thinking about this right now because we are in  a year where much of the leadership of the world will be changing gears. We can sense it in the air.

Significantly, it’s happening in the two most powerful countries in the world. China has already selected its next president. America will be doing so in November. Elections, uprisings and threats of removals are also happening from Syria to France and from Russia to Mali.

Here at Mangaung in December, the ANC will once again hunker down and choose its leader, who inevitably will be the next president of South Africa. Politicians of all stripes will be making their promises and trying to impress the electorate. The air is dense with lobbying. The media do their probing and searching for any titbit of scandal or misdemeanour that can change or influence opinions. These days, like movie stars, political leaders have teams of advisors, style consultants and publicists, grooming their every movement and policy speech. And we, members of the exhausted electorate, have to find some sensible way of assessing the real character and personality of those campaigning for our votes.       

What do we base our decisions on? And what do the people of the United States base their decisions on?  In China, almost nobody argues with authority and people are simply told what will happen. But in the big democracies, how do we assess Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Or at home, Motlanthe versus Zuma? Is it what the man says and how he projects? Is it possible to get any real understanding of his track record?  Do we trust him, in any case, to do what he says?

The truth is that in this fragile world, where we are so manipulated by smoke and mirrors, it is doubtful whether we can base our assessment of an individual on any degree of what is real. Think of how many times we have found out after the fact that some prominent figure has had serious personal baggage, not known when all the jiving and hand-clapping was taking place.

We only discover the truth when people are put to the test, or the media lead us to it. In supposedly squeaky-clean, high-minded America, think of how often we have heard of presidential candidates with a record of sexual misconduct, or who have been guilty of corruption, or have told the world outright lies. They may not have been full-blown psychopaths, but it makes one think, doesn’t it?

And here at home, we are again deep into all the tentacles of the arms deal, and a president who is facing serious charges of corruption. What about him? Forget about all the extra-marital sex and taking of showers. His supporters say he is a “man of the people”.’ He has an engaging manner and a charming smile.            

Please beware. Politicians are not in this for the altruistic ideals they espouse. The political aphrodisiac is power. It is the ability to stride with kings and presidents, and the sure knowledge that your opinions will be listened to and acted upon. 

And before we laugh, it is no different in business. In a recent piece of research, Clive Brody at Nottingham Trent University referred to the “corporate psychopaths” who caused the economic crisis because of “their lack of conscience... and their inability to have any feelings, empathy or sympathy for people”.       

The other expert in psychopathy is Canadian Robert Hare, who found that a significant percentage of business leaders display “definite signs of being psychopaths”.

The extraordinary thing is that it is the very qualities that make people attractive to us as forceful, strong leaders that often conceal the worst parts of their personalities. So, in business as in politics, watch out for the suave manipulator who makes all those promises, and look again at what Jim Collins, author of Good to Great calls the “level five” leader: the outstanding one who will do an excellent job and who is usually an introvert, the one who shies away from the limelight. DM


  • Johann Redelinghuys
JohanRedelinghuysBW

Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.

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