Psychopathic Leadership, Part One: Our Ancient Ambivalence toward the Psychopathic Leader

Norman Sandridge
25 min readMar 13, 2015

—and how we may overcome it (Part One)

in hoc natura quid efficere possit videtur experta. constat enim inter omnes, qui de eo memoriae prodiderunt, nihil illo fuisse excellentius vel in vitiis vel in virtutibus.

In this man Nature seems to have tried to see what she could accomplish: for in fact all who have published a biography about him agree that nothing was ever more outstanding either in its faults or in its virtues than this man.—Cornelius Nepos (c.99-c.24 BCE) on the fifth-century Athenian statesman Alcibiades, son of Clinias (1.1).

The times they are a-changin’—more rapidly, more profoundly, more irreversibly than Dylan ever imagined when he sang about them fifty-one years ago. Such change requires that we be more vigilant about the future, to ensure that, of all possible outcomes, we settle into the one we want and need. One topic that requires this vigilance is leadership. Consider these five questions:

  1. In the future, will the dominant form of leadership—in our governments, our corporations, our institutions of higher education—be democratic?
  2. What kinds of leaders will our colleges and universities turn out, given that most of them consider training leaders to be part of their mission?
  3. Will women ever achieve equality in terms of the number of leadership roles they hold and the influence of those roles?
  4. What sort of leadership will the artificial intelligence of the future provide? Note that I didn’t put quotes around “leadership.” I fully imagine that AI machines will make (and are making) decisions on our behalf, they will use persuasion (or coercion) to enlist our participation, and they will have interests of their own to take into account, perhaps to the exclusion of everyone else—all crucial aspects of traditional, biological leadership.
  5. What sort of leadership will the world’s military and police forces have? Specifically, will those who fight our battles still experience high rates PTSD—or will there be a way around this?

Now, I’m going to make a strange and seemingly playful claim: how we answer these questions depends heavily on whether or not we adopt psychopathic leadership as our model.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards

You are entitled to an explanation of my strange claim, and here it is. If you don’t have a great working definition of psychopathy yet, you’re not alone, and I promise we will reach some greater clarity soon. In the meantime, for those who can’t wait, here’s a good start.

For those who can wait, here’s how I would begin: however we want to characterize psychopathic leadership—as autocratic, tyrannical, totalitarian, monarchical, anarchic, meritocratic, or libertarian—it is probably not accurate to call it democratic. Psychopaths might be receptive to ideas from others, but they don’t tend to care about building a sense of shared community, giving everyone a vote, or taking turns in the seat of power. If we decide we want more psychopathic leaders, the future will look distinctly different. Colleges and universities will need to know how to spot psychopaths (luckily, they tend to show their stripes in childhood), what courses and majors to offer them, what skills to inculcate, and what forms of residential life to promote.

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards

And, since psychopaths (at least the criminal ones) are overwhelmingly male by approximately 90% , we will almost certainly be committing ourselves to a patriarchal system of governance, though not in the etymological sense of a “rule” (arche) by the “father” (pater), since psychopaths have contradictory or non-existent feelings for children.

I didn’t feel connected to my kids until they were old enough to start responding as human beings, when they were toddlers. Before that, they were like dolls to me— James Fallon (2013: 136), self-identified psychopath.

In the realm of artificial intelligence, if we do not engineer computers with more humane impulses—whatever those happen to be—we may be setting ourselves up for annihilation at the hands of cold, calculating machines of science fiction, like the HAL 9000 in 2001. It is easy to believe they could also exhibit the psychopath’s capacity for manipulation because they would know everything about us—even things we don’t yet know about ourselves. Could they not just carpet bomb our brains with flattering media as we lie languid on our couches, believing that we are still king of the castle?

Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Finally, since psychopathic soldiers have low anxiety and legendary fearlessness, they can kill and order others to kill with lower incidences of PTSD. Whereas once in fiction we watched doctors try to eradicate psychopathy via chemically-induced nausea in concert with graphic images, they may soon be able to produce psychopathy via Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) or the drug propranolol, in order to diminish the trauma of killing another person and to eradicate the haunting memory of that experience. Exit night. Enter light? Right?

Ted Bundy representing himself in court.

At this point you may think it’s weird that I’m asking whether psychopathic leadership should be the model we adopt going forward. It’s almost as if I’m asking you whether Ted Bundy would have made a good president. And by claiming that psychopathic leadership affects other important questions about leadership I might as well be arguing that we need to take left-handed leadership, e.g., seriously in order to tackle these questions. Nobody needs to take psychopathic leadership seriously, you could say, because nobody wants to be the minion of a Bond Villain, left for dead in the throes of battle or forced to be the panicked target practice of some revolutionary death-ray. End of story.

But I can point to at least FOUR LEVELS on which we are actually very ambivalent on the question of whether psychopaths make good leaders, much more so than we are about left-handed leaders.

  1. Psychopaths are overrepresented in leadership populations.
  2. The human brain seems to be attracted to certain psychopathic traits (yes, I mean even sexually).
  3. Some psychopathic traits have been shown to be good leadership traits.
  4. Whatever other leadership traits they may have, psychopaths are willing to do ugly things for us that we ourselves won’t do but nonetheless deem necessary for the kind of “peace” we want to live in.

Here, I will explain.

AMBIVALENCE 1: Psychopaths are overrepresented in leadership populations.

Hervey Cleckley in his seminal work on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, describes a businessman in his fifties as an example of a psychopath, especially in his reckless impulsiveness. The description could have been the basis for Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, if this movie had not been based on the life of another likely psychopath, Jordan Belfort.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street

“If he drinks at all, it is to reach a state of roaring folly and perhaps to continue until he may fall limp. He frequently goes out of the city and, in some hotel of dubious standing, gathers a few coarse companions and begins to pour liquor into himself on such occasions. His associates are usually uninteresting drifters or vagrants ready to accept any handout. Sometimes obvious psychopaths are included. Often harlots are called into the room where this noisy group of fat, middle-aged men are already staggering about, sweaty in their undershirts or lying out half stupefied across the beds or on the floors. The women are stripped or encouraged to strip themselves, and among those men still able to flounder about a great clamor arises. The women are chased about and fumbled over. Intercourse is accomplished by the more energetic ones, not in the privacy ordinarily considered desirable but in the presence of all and often on beds across which a more sodden member of the group lies snoring.” (Cleckley 1988: 194).

The reality of psychopathy in business is more than anecdotal and involves more than reckless impulse. Babiak and Hare in their book, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work (2006), conducted a study of “high achieving” corporate professionals, suggesting that the population of psychopaths in such echelons of leadership is more than triple what it is in the normal population (3.5% vs. less than 1%). Since then there have been many studies and examples of psychopaths as overrepresented in fields outside of business (e.g., law and television/radio). Robert Hare contends that corporations are themselves psychopathic on many levels, metaphorically speaking.

Sociologist Paul Lawrence has studied psychopathy in historical leaders, people he dubs “leaders-w/o-conscience.” He claims that “30 percent of the people I rated as high-impact leaders throughout history struck me as bad or evil leaders, people-w/o-conscience.” Lawrence believes that such leaders (e.g., like the Roman Emperor Constantine) have traditionally been given a pass by historians on the (to him) dubious grounds that these leaders committed atrocities for ideological reasons. Whether we accept Lawrence’s diagnosis that all these leaders were actually psychopathic, it seems reasonable to conclude that the leadership role, throughout history, has required many leaders at least to behave psychopathically.

More immediate to our time period, Lilienfeld, Rubenzer, and Fashingbauer (2010) asked the biographers of presidents up to George W. Bush to rate their subjects according to the psychopathic traits they exhibited. Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy topped the list.

Most of us are aware of the success of psychopaths in leadership roles and we have easy rationalizations to explain this: even if we grant that other people are fooled by psychopaths and that we ourselves are occasionally fooled, we tend to believe that this is an accident, a mark of our immaturity or our fellow citizen’s gullibility.

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987)

We might be momentarily be seduced by Gordon Gekko and his ability to make greed sound good. He reads our insecurities, flatters us, makes us feel more important than we really are. His slick hair and ritzy insouciance warrant his spot atop the evolutionary pyramid. But the ruse is always exposed in the end — and the young man grows up.

Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes by François-Xavier Fabre (1800)

We have told ourselves this story for a long time. Our honesty shall be displayed another time, says Odysseus (Ulysses) to Neoptolemus 2,500 years ago, as he persuades him to steal the magic bow of Heracles (Hercules) from Philoctetes. Now, however, give yourself to me for one brief, shameless day, and then for the rest of time may you be called the most righteous of all humankind. Yet in the face of such alluring amorality our salvation, so the story goes, lies in the recognition of our own inherent goodness and the counsels of wise, more humane elders. You have revealed the true stock, my son, from which you spring, Neoptolemus hears the fatherly Philoctetes say. You are no child of Sisyphus, but of Achilles, whose fame was the fairest when he was among the living, as it is now with the dead.

But evidence would suggest that our folly runs deeper than youthful naivete.

AMBIVALENCE 2: We’re attracted to psychopaths and we’re wary of a leader’s expression of emotion.

Paul Lawrence argues that humans are “tricked” by the Gordon Gekkos and Odysseuses of the world on a much deeper level: our vulnerability to manipulation is caused both by our trusting brains and even our quest for meaning in life (ideology).

“[Humans] are hard-wired not to believe in [the existence of] people-w/o-conscience…[We] are one of the very few primates with whites to their eyes. It has been speculated that this is because humans are the only primates hard-wired to trust, rather than distrust, each other — the only primates with a drive to bond that is independent of the drives to acquire and defend. Chimpanzees, for example, instinctively distrust each other and distrust human experimenters who try to help them get hold of some food. Just as chimps cannot imagine our human unselfishness, we find it exceedingly difficult to believe another human can be as utterly selfish as people-w/o-conscience. It takes great mental effort for us to recategorize people-w/o-conscience from the unbelievable…to the believable” (Lawrence 2010: 260).


“[Humans] are misled by the causes and ideologies used by people-w/o-conscience. Going back over [the] examples of leaders-w/o-conscience made it clear to me that the particular ideology each one picked to help him ride [sic] to power was incidental, only an opportunistic choice, a historic accident” (Lawrence 2010: 260).

By contrast, the work of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam suggests that we very much know what we are getting ourselves into when we partner with psychopaths: it is not the case that we fall for a wolf in sheep’s clothing—we actually want the wolf. In their work A Billion Wicked Thoughts (2011), Ogas and Gaddam studied human sexual preferences in the nearly anonymous environment of the Internet; this anonymity, they argue, reveals human proclivities at their most honest and transparent. In the case of men, both homosexual and heterosexual, Ogas and Gaddam studied the different search terms and preferences in pornography. For women it was primarily erotic fiction. Perhaps not surprisingly for this genre, there was a strong preference for alpha-males, ambitious and ruthless men in dominant roles, leaderly or otherwise. For example, the top ten professions from a survey of 15,000+ Harlequin romance novels were doctor, cowboy, boss, prince, rancher, knight, surgeon, king, bodyguard, and sheriff.

“Conspicuously absent from the list of romance heroes are blue-collar workers (no janitors or welders), bureaucrats (no claims adjusters or associate marketing managers), and traditionally feminine professions (no hairdressers, secretaries, or kindergarten teachers)” (Ogas and Gaddam 2011: 95).

What’s more, these “heroes” are often violent, predatory, abusive, and unfeeling toward others—though their behavior has limits. They exhibit a form of dominance that is eventually tamed by the woman in service to her needs. The attraction to such dominance, and the acts of abuse associated with it, is known as hybristophilia and seems to manifest itself in specific places in the brain:

“Study after study has demonstrated the erotic appeal of male dominance. Women prefer the voices of dominant men, the scent of dominant men, the movement and gait of dominant men, and the facial features of dominant men…Scientists believe that the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex may be responsible for processing cues indicating social dominance, and it appears that almost all female brains are susceptible to dominance cues” (Ogas and Gaddam 96).

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in House of Cards (1990)

One of the best examples of both the deep trust that psychopaths are able to engender in us (Lawrence’s view) and our attraction to cues of dominance and danger (Ogas and Goddam) is in the romantic relationship between psychopathic politician Francis Urquhart and journalist Mattie Storin in the British version of House of Cards. Of course, our trust of and attraction to psychopaths does not mean that psychopaths actually make good leaders, but…

AMBIVALENCE 3: Some psychopathic traits seem to be correlated with “good leadership”.

Though it is fair to say that we are ambivalent about or repulsed by some psychopathic traits (instrumental violence, manipulativeness, remorselessness, callousness), many of them sound suitable for leaders: charm, fearlessness, boldness, disregard for convention, a willingness to step on toes to get things done, versatility, fluid public speaking, the ability to read and relate to multiple and contradictory groups, calmness under pressure, physical attractiveness. We will see, too, that there are some contexts in which psychopaths might actually be fairer than non-psychopaths because they feel no special loyalty to family and friends. Kevin Dutton has written two books on all the other supposedly good traits that psychopaths have, e.g., focus under pressure, indifference to criticism, daring to try things no one else has.

Even psychopathic traits that sound a little ambiguous can turn out to be positive. In 2012 Lilienfeld et al. concluded that one of the aspects of psychopathy known as fearless dominance “was associated with better rated presidential performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management, Congressional relations, and allied variables; it was also associated with several largely or entirely objective indicators of presidential performance, such as initiating new projects and being viewed as a world figure.”

Just as some psychopathic traits may seem good for leadership, non-psychopathic traits can seem anathema to good leadership. I’m thinking here of expressions of emotional frailty.

Back in 2004 Howard Dean seems to have cost himself the presidency with a single, quavering “yeah!” In 2008 when Hillary Clinton welled up for less than a minute on the primary campaign trail in New Hampshire, some wondered if she had the composure to be the leader of the free world, while others thought it displayed a welcome sign of humanity. Clinton and her camp agonized over how it might be interpreted. There is even a technical term for the time when a politician is ruined by too much public emotion: a “Muskie Moment.”

Darius “The Great”, king of Persia (c. 550–486 BCE), on a relief from the Audience Hall (Apadana) in Persepolis

The United States is an empire, and empires have prized order and stability since the ancient Persians. For such imperial purposes, this order should resonate with the heavens, and so our president also functions as our high priest, concluding most major speech acts with “God bless the United States of America.” So it is not surprising that leaders should be valued for their emotional composure and viewed with disdain for their vulnerability—what would the Russians think?—though I grant you that being emotionally composed is not the same thing as being emotionally shallow or unfeeling like a psychopath.

AMBIVALENCE 4: We seem to want leaders to do ugly things for us.

To use an anatomical metaphor, we don’t always have the guts, spine, stomach, or balls to make some of the “hard decisions” that leaders are expected to make. Neither do we want to do these things in the moment nor do we want to take responsibility for them afterward.

A treatise has come down to us from the 4th century BCE whose unknown authorship is given as “Pseudo-Xenophon” (or the “Old Oligarch”). The author contrasts the level of responsibility that people in a democracy are willing to accept with the accountability that monarchs or oligarchs must accept. He goes on to note several rationalizations that people use to shift the blame when things don’t go well:

“For oligarchic cities it is necessary to keep to alliances and oaths. If they do not abide by agreements or if injustice is done, there are the names of the few who made the agreement. But whatever agreements the populace makes can be repudiated by referring the blame to the one who spoke or took the vote, while the others declare that they were absent or did not approve of the agreement made in the full assembly. If it seems advisable for their decisions not to be effective, they invent myriad excuses for not doing what they do not want to do. And if there are any bad results from the people’s plans, they charge that a few persons, working against them, ruined their plans; but if there is a good result, they take the credit for themselves” (Old Oligarch 2.17, translation Heinemann).

In the 1970s Michael Walzer introduced the “Problem of Dirty Hands” to the study of leadership; it was a way of asking whether leaders must do unethical things to carry out their role, which was a itself a way of asking when it was just to go to war. One question that emerges from this problem is whether you would rather have someone do these unethical things and not lose sleep about it (someone who is by temperament a psychopath) or someone who would be willing to “play the psychopath” but yet suffer for it. We will have much more to say about this ambivalence in subsequent sections, but for now see if you agree with Colonel Nathan Jessup’s explanation of how we can’t handle the truth about the kind of leader we want and need.

A variant of this position is that psychopathic leaders do ugly things that may harm humans but benefit humanity. James Fallon puts it thusly:

“Whereas many people will freeze in a stressful situation, real leaders take chances, as do psychopaths. In a position of power, they’ll branch out into new markets when times are uncertain, or they’ll activate the military or take their tribe over the next mountain. This may work out for the group they’re in charge of, or it may not. On a larger scale, it benefits civilization to have groups take chances, because some will succeed and move civilization forward—just as biological evolution benefits from mutations, even though many of them are deadly” (Fallon 2013: 218).

A fMRI of a normal brain paired with a psychopathic brain showing deficiency in the orbito- and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

BUT WHAT DO WE MEAN BY ‘PSYCHOPATH’? So, the arguments above have been made to persuade you that we do have a deep and abiding ambivalence toward psychopathic leaders. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. I have been throwing around the term “psychopath” as though we all understood and agreed on what it meant. But the question about the goodness of psychopathic leadership will continue to confuse us until we say what psychopathy is, beyond the popular incarnations: the con artist, the unscrupulous CEO, the serial killer, the femme fatale from film noir. The term “psychopathic” originally referred to all physically-rooted mental disorders (J. L. Koch 1891) and has gone through a number of alterations in meaning. It’s primarily a term used for the criminal or mentally ill, for those who seem to have no remorse for their unlawful and predatory behavior but yet possess sophisticated ways of carrying out such behavior, including normal if not high (emotional) intelligence. This condition has long been thought to have at least some basis in the person’s inherent nature and to manifest itself in childhood. Hervey Cleckley lays out 16 traits for this condition in The Mask of Sanity (1941, 1st edition). Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is the most-widely known and cited today, especially in a criminal context, where a diagnosis can serve to mitigate a criminal sentence or to deny parole (on the belief that psychopathy is largely untreatable). There are also other ways of parsing and testing the constellation of traits thought to make up psychopathy. You may hear scholars use a range of qualifications: high- and low-anxiety psychopathy, successful and unsuccessful, clinical and criminal, violent and non-violent, prosocial and “psychopathic lite.” The term sociopath has fallen into disuse but did at one time refer to someone with psychopathic features who is maladjusted to society because of prior trauma.

There are ongoing debates about exactly what psychopathy is, independent of being a cultural and scientific construct. Are the traits thought to make up psychopathy causally connected somehow—or is the term just a dumping ground for all that society deems “evil”? Is it genetic and is it an adaptive evolutionary condition or just a random mutation? Is it a condition that has existed across cultures and time? Does it have correlates in the chemistry and physiology of the brain? Do environmental factors, especially in early childhood, contribute to the (de-)activation of psychopathic behavior? The biggest challenge is of course identifying the exact role that culture, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, and environment play in “psychopathy.” We will have need to discuss aspects of all of them, though it is not my goal to settle the debate about what psychopathy essentially is.

For our purposes here it is necessary to point out that psychopathy is now understood to be a dimensional condition, that is, everyone has a degree of it, and the permutations of combinations of the all the traits are nearly infinite, though some argue that there are levels of psychopathy that should count as categorical differences (to be deemed a “clinical psychopath” in America you must score at least a 30 out of 40 on the PCL-R).

The real question we are asking here is not ‘do psychopaths make good leaders?’ but ‘what degree of psychopathy must a good leader exhibit?’

We could of course just ask what a good leader is, but the ancient ambivalence we feel for the psychopathic leader is, I believe, a more constructive place to start the conversation, keeping in the backs of our mind the ultimate goal of understanding good leadership.

LEADERSHIP. Just as we need clarification on the meaning of psychopathy, we need clarification about the meaning of leadership and the very different psychological conditions that leaders operate under compared to a non-leader. Definitions of leadership abound and it is probably not constructive here to imagine that any one definition will satisfy everyone, but the one that I typically use in my courses is this:

leadership is the art of significantly or crucially causing another living creature or group to participate in the achievement of a goal that is in the interest of that group, though it may also be in the interest of the leader

With this definition I am allowing that leadership can exist elsewhere within the animal kingdom, that it involves some degree of intent on the part of the leader and some consensual participation rather than unwilling, accidental, or unknowing obedience (e.g., the master-slave relationship), and that it promotes goals that are in the interest of the followers. So, for example, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater may “significantly cause” others to “participate” in the evacuation of the theater but could not be considered leadership by my definition, unless there were a real fire, the escaping of which was in the interest of those who fled. I have omitted from the definition other types of non-helpful influence that one powerful or charismatic person might have on the group. These are certainly interesting topics, but to the extent that they don’t actually benefit the community, they are only of community interest insofar as we try to eradicate them. So, when I ask if psychopaths make good leaders, I really do mean to ask if they benefit the community, even if we must acknowledge that it is not necessarily their primary motive to see the community benefit.

According to this definition the leader has three main challenges: (1) to know, or figure out, what is actually “in the interest of the group,” interests that usually include safety, security, prosperity, greater wisdom, or a stronger sense of community; (2) to be good at enlisting the participation of the group, often by force of character, charm, eloquence, or delegated authority; and (3) to determine how to reconcile the interests of the group with the leader’s own interests or motives for leading. This final problem is often one of the most overlooked and will be crucial to our ability to tackle the questions of leadership and psychopathy. We take it for granted that a leader must work for our benefit, in order to legitimize his or her leadership. As Socrates explains in Plato’s Republic (c. 385 BCE), a physician is regarded as “ruler of bodies” because he looks out for their advantage (he does not earn the title physician by looking out for his own advantage). Nevertheless leaders are people, too, who are hard-wired for self-preservation, so we also need to ask ourselves, what does the leader get out of the role—and are we comfortable with it? Some possible forms of compensation, or motives, come to mind: money, extralegal privilege, social license, perks, the love of wielding power, the love of honor, the desire to realize some kind of artistic or creative vision (what a gardener, architect, or theater director might feel), or an empathetic concern for others and an empathetic delight in their success. These motives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, though psychopaths, almost by definition, are incapable of the final two.

For this work I am thinking primarily of political and business leaders who wield enormous influence; and, obviously, there is a big difference between, say, a four-star general and a kindergarten teacher. “Good leadership” is not so interchangeable a quality that the kindergarten teacher could switch places with the general. I pick the “big deals” because their circumstances admit the most drama and so are the easiest to analyze. Nevertheless, most leadership roles that I can think of share some common features that give rise to similar questions about good leadership and the emotional responses proper to good leadership. I will argue now that we can constructively entertain questions about psychopathic leadership for any of the roles we might imagine.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE OF LEADERSHIP. Consider that most leadership roles—whether we’re thinking of kindergarten teachers, generals, bosses, parents, coaches, priests, kings and queens, or presidents—carry some degree of (1) RESPONSIBILITY for others. This may be a responsibility for their health, their safety, their success, their financial well-being, their education, or their very souls. Often it may entail making quick decisions based on privileged intelligence or some other mode we as non-leaders can hardly comprehend. We expect the leader to make things right: this is the verbal kernel inside the rex, the regina, the regent, the director, the reign, the sovereign, the raj, and the trappings of royalty. With this responsibility there often comes (2) ACCOUNTABILITY; people tend to think they can criticize the leader when things don’t go well. They want explanations. They want the truth. But as long as things do go well, the leader enjoys (3) PRESTIGE in the form of honor, praise, privileges, and perks. Finally, perhaps the most familiar aspect of leadership is the (4) AUTHORITY or the POWER that comes with it. The people love me, and the sea is mine; my powers are crescent, and my auguring hope, says it will come to the full.

Now imagine how responsibility, accountability, prestige, and authority could affect someone’s emotional life. For example, how much more complicated is it to carry on a whirlwind romance when you have to worry about what your constituents think? We could ask former South Carolina Governor, Mark Sanford.

And what about the aphrodisiac effects of power, both on the leader and his or her beloved? Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse, complains that a leader with absolute authority can never know whether someone truly loves him.

“The fact is, a private citizen has instant proof that any act of compliance on the part of his beloved is prompted by affection, since he knows that the service rendered is due to no compulsion; but the despot can never feel sure that he is loved. For we know that acts of service prompted by fear copy as closely as possible the ministrations of affection. Indeed, even plots against despots as often as not are the work of those who profess the deepest affection for them” (Xenophon’s Hieron 37–38, translation Marchant).

What is it like to grapple with the intoxication of power, the confidence it gives you, and the false impression that everyone loves you. Ask former congressmen from New York Anthony Weiner how his brain stood up to the challenge.

Rulers make bad lovers; you better put your kingdom up for sale—Stevie Nicks

Indeed, power is a license to tend and nurture a host of unchecked emotions: lust, envy, pride, anger. A plain man cannot stand against the anger of a king, who if he swallow his displeasure now, will yet nurse revenge till he has wreaked it.

Does the prestige that comes with leadership affect a person’s self-awareness? Shouldn’t you follow the Delphic Oracle’s command to “know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), especially as a leader? But how long can you be flattered and honored before you become a slave to the hype? And what about the weight of responsibility? What does it do to your conscience to have the lives of dozens—or millions—of people in your hands? Jason, leader of the Argonauts, knows a bit about this:

“I am given over to excessive fear and unbearable worries, dreading to sail over the chilling paths of the sea in a ship, and dreading the time when we set foot on land, for everywhere are hostile men. And always, day after day, ever since you first gathered together for my sake, I spend the dreary night thinking about every detail. You speak easily, since you are concerned with your own life alone, whereas I am not the slightest distraught about mine, but fear for this man and that man, and equally for you and the other comrades, if I do not bring you back safe and sound to the land of Hellas” (Apollonius’ Argonautica 2.627–637, translation Race).

Aside from your responsibility, how do you keep from worrying about the criticism and threats you will face if things don’t go well—or no matter how things go? Ask Alexander the Great. Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep.

So, yes, whether you are a general or a kindergarten teacher, as long as you take your job seriously, your leadership role may cause you to face psychological challenges posed by your responsibility (will your students learn all that they need to? all of them? will they get into a good college?); or by your accountability (what will parents think about the job you’re doing? your principal? are your colleagues on your side or are they out to get you? what will all the first grade teachers think when they have to teach your students?); or, finally, by the effects of your authority and your prestige, such as it is (will you talk down to your students? ignore their needs because you can get away with it? will you lavish extra attention and give better grades to the students who are cuter, funnier, and more complimentary?).

THE APPROACH. In raising these questions about psychopathy and leadership, I don’t mean to give myself out as an expert on all fields that treat these questions: psychology, sociology, neuroscience, leadership studies, political science, evolutionary biology, philosophy, history, computer science. Our knowledge about psychopathy is growing exponentially, which is all the more reason for us, as citizens, to try to comprehend it collaboratively but also in general terms, by noting the similarities and differences among the various fields. I am trained as a classicist or more broadly as a humanist, which means I am concerned with culture, language, ethics, and politics, among other narrower topics. Ultimately, like all of us, I try to figure out what it is that we humans can hope for out of life. My goal in this work is to tackle these questions of psychopathic leadership from as many perspectives as I can find, but even more importantly to convince my readers that all of us should care about these questions.

In what follows, we will take a look at psychopathy’s salient features and the extent to which they make for good or at least necessary leadership traits. Of course, these traits may turn out to be necessary but insufficient for good leadership.

In the next part, we will look at the first trait on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL-R), namely, glib speech and superficial charm. Speaking of which, Ted Bundy’s shot at the White House was not as far-fetched as you might have imagined…


Barrat, James. 2013. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. New York.

Cleckley, Hervey. 1988 [1941]. The Mask of Sanity (5th edition). St. Louis.

Dutton, Kevin. 2012. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. New York.

Fallon, James. 2013. The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. New York.

Forth, Bo, and Kongerslev. 2013. “Assessment of Psychopathy: The Hare Psychopathy Checklist Measures.” 5–33. in Kiehl and Armstrong, edd. Handbook on Psychopathy and Law. Oxford.

Heilemann, J. and M. Halperin. 2010. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. New York.

Kiehl, Kent. 2014. The Psychopath Whisperer. New York.

Lilienfeld et al. 2012. Fearless dominance and the U.S. presidency: Implications of psychopathic personality traits for successful and unsuccessful political leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 103(3), Sep. 2012, 489–505.

Lawrence, Paul. 2010. Driven to Lead: Good, Bad, and Misguided Leadership. San Francisco.

Michaud, S. and H. Aynesworth. 1999. The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy. Irving.

Millon, Simonsen, Birket-Smith, and Davis, edd. 1998. Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior. New York.

Skeem et al. 2011. Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy. Psychological Science in the
Public Interest
12(3) 95–162.

Wren, Thomas. 2009. “Reinventing the Liberal Arts.” in Wren, Riggio, and Genevese, edd. Leadership and the Liberal Arts: Achieving the Promise of a Liberal Education. New York.

Young, Andrew. 2010. The Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal that Brought Him Down. New York.



Norman Sandridge

Associate professor of Classics at Howard University and fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies, specializing in ancient leadership and the emotions