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

  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?
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in House of Cards
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in House of Cards

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.

Malcolm McDowell as Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Ted Bundy representing himself in court.
  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.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987)
Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes by François-Xavier Fabre (1800)

“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:

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart in House of Cards (1990)
Darius “The Great”, king of Persia (c. 550–486 BCE), on a relief from the Audience Hall (Apadana) in Persepolis
A fMRI of a normal brain paired with a psychopathic brain showing deficiency in the orbito- and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

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 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.

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.



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

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Norman Sandridge

Norman Sandridge

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