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Does a chief executive officer need to be a slight psychopath?

Psychopath = Serial killer, right? But Dr Kevin Dutton, Oxford University psychologist, thinks that’s giving psychopathy a raw deal. He defines psychopaths as “individuals with a distinct subset of personality characteristics which include ruthlessness, fearlessness, self-confidence, coolness under pressure, charisma, narcissism and emotional detachment”. According to him, if you have these characteristics, but are also violent and stupid, you’ll probably end up in prison. “But if you happen to be intelligent and not naturally violent, then you’re more likely to make a killing in the market rather than anywhere else.”

The Wisdom Of Psychopaths is the controversial book he wrote after studying both convicted psychopaths and successful professionals in different fields (the cover has a recommendation from renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran). In it, Dutton lists jobs that attract the most psychopaths and where they thrive. The top 10, in ascending order, are: civil servant, chef, clergy person, police officer, journalist, surgeon, salesperson, media (TV/radio), lawyer and CEO. Strangely enough, politicians don’t figure.

Let’s look at these professions. An average citizen would have had many more bad experiences with a civil servant than good ones. In other words, he faced narcissism and lack of empathy. Chefs seem to be a surprise. But think about it: they lead teams to do very precise work in high-stress, often-chaotic and literally hot environments. Extreme coolness under pressure and self-confidence are critical. In a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair magazine, uber-chef Gordon Ramsay said, “Chefs are nutters. They’re… absolute psychopaths. Every last one of them.” When asked if he was a psychopath, he replied: “Absolutely.”

Next comes the clergy person. In an interview to, Dutton said: “Any situation where you’ve a got a power structure, a hierarchy, the ability to manipulate or wield control over people, you get psychopaths doing very well.” Those interested can read former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Joe Navarro’s remarkable analysis of why the Catholic Church attracted so many sexually predatory psychopaths. (Note: Navarro cautions that “any religious group, as history has taught us, can be taken advantage of by predators”.) Dutton’s logic for clergymen, hierarchy and ability to wield control holds true for policemen too. Next come journalists. Those with full emotional detachment can insensitively intrude on people’s privacy, manipulate them to open up, milk tragedies for maximum “juice” and possibly do very well in their profession.

A 2015 study in the UK found that surgeons had a higher mean psychopathic score than the general population. They exhibited high “stress immunity, cold-heartedness and fearlessness”. In his book, Dutton quotes a top neurosurgeon: “The most important thing when you’re conducting a dangerous operation is to be very cool under pressure. You can’t have too much empathy for the person you’re operating on, because you wouldn’t be able to conduct that operation.”

Salespersons need charm and strong self-belief so they can bounce back from failures to close deals. A psychopath, in addition to these qualities, would be adept at lying, cheating clients, stealing colleagues’ contacts—in short, doing anything to meet targets. Given the right (wrong?) sort of employer, he could be ideal for the job.

TV and law being attractive to psychopaths seems to be a no-brainer. This is not a generalized judgement on our TV anchors, but some of them are obviously narcissistic and have gigantic egos. Again, without generalizing, let’s admit that every lawyer-joke is essentially about psychopathic behaviour: lying, cheating, an absence of morals.

Finally, on top of the heap, the CEO. According to a 2011 study by American psychologist Paul Babiak, every 25th business leader could be a psychopath. “Their natural tendency is to be charming,” says Babiak. “Take that charm and couch it in the right business language and it sounds like charismatic leadership…The higher the psychopathy, the better they looked.” Psychopaths can also take brutal decisions far more easily than others, which investors often love.

Now comes the interesting bit. In his interview, Dutton said: “If you have some of (the psychopathic traits) up high and some of them down low, depending on the context, in certain endeavours, certain professions, you are going to be predisposed to great success. The key is to be able to turn them back down again.” He says psychopaths are assertive, don’t procrastinate, tend to focus on the positive, and are cool under pressure. All good qualities. “If they see a benefit in something, they go for it 100%. Let’s take an example of someone scared of asking for a raise. You might be scared what the boss might think of you. You might think you’re going to get fired. Forget it. ‘Psychopath up’, overwhelm your negative feelings by concentrating on the benefits of getting it. A bit of localised psychopathy is good for all of us.” Dutton has also co-written, with Andy McNab (the pseudonym of a British soldier), a self-help book, The Good Psychopath’s Guide To Success. Readers eyeing the corner office may want to pick it up.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines.

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