Exploring Sharp Personality Clashes in the C-Suite


Back in 2002 I had a meeting with a number of CHROs who spent the first hour in what I refer to as a "Let me tell you what an SOB my CEO is" conversation. (That was not the theme of the meeting, but they all knew one another and seemingly forgot I was in the room.) Needless to say, this got my attention and busted the rose-colored glasses I had about senior executives. Later confidential interviews have revealed the significant level of dysfunction that often exists in the executive suite.

I was reminded of this when I recently read Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test. The book is based on Robert Hare's 20 item checklist for identifying psychopaths. Ronson interviews a number of people associated with what he refers to as "the madness industry" including the founder of the checklist, Robert Hare himself. Two interesting stories in the book might be interesting fodder for CHROs to dwell on.

First, in one of his conversations with Hare, the psychologist reveals that he just completed a study assessing 203 corporate professionals (including CEOs, directors, and supervisors) with his checklist. While the majority were not psychopathic, he states "3.9% had a score of at least 30, which is extremely high, even for a prison population, at least 4 or 5 times the prevalence in the general population."

Second, Ronson interviews "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop, asking him to essentially assess himself on the psychopath test. Dunlop pretty much confesses to a number of psychopathic traits, justifying them as positives for a CEO.

Superficial charm?"I'm totally charming. I amtotallycharming."
Grandiose sense of self-worth?"No question. If you don't believe in yourself, nobody else will. You've got to believe in you."
Impulsivity?"...just another way of saying Quick Analysis. Some people spend a week weighing up the pros and cons. Me? I look at it for ten minutes. And if the pros outweigh the cons? Go!"
Shallow affect?Stops you from feeling "some nonsense emotions."
Lack of remorse?"Frees you up to move forward and achieve more great things. What's the point in drowning yourself in sorrow."
Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom?"Yeah, I'm very prone to boredom. I gotta do something. Yeah. That's a fair statement. I'm not the most relaxed person in the world. My mind does not stop working at night."
Manipulative?"I think you could describe that as leadership. Inspire! I think it's called leadership."

So, this begs a couple of questions that I think CHROs have to ask themselves. First, at what point does leadership end and psychopathy begin? Second, are you currently working with the next Al Dunlop and if so, what are you going to do about it?

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts: Patrick.wright@cornell.edu