1/2/13 - psychopaths and CEOs

In today's selection -- to start 2013 off on the right foot, we share some observations on the similarity between successful people, such as surgeons or CEOs, and psychopaths. In fact, one prominent venture capitalist states that the three characteristics most predictive of success in executives are determination, curiosity and insensitivity. (Full disclosure -- I have been a CEO for much of my career):

"Traits that are common among psychopathic serial killers -- a grandiose sense of self-worth, persuasiveness, superficial charm, ruthlessness, lack of remorse and the manipulation of others -- are also shared by politicians and world leaders. Individuals, in other words, running not from the police. But for office. Such a profile allows those who present with these traits to do what they like when they like, completely unfazed by the social, moral or legal consequences of their actions. ...

"If you are violent and cunning, like the real-life "Hannibal Lecter" Robert Maudsley, you might take a fellow inmate hostage, smash his skull in and sample his brains with a spoon as nonchalantly as if you were downing a soft-boiled egg. (Maudsley, by the way, has been cooped up in solitary confinement for the past 30 years, in a bulletproof cage in the basement of Wakefield Prison in England.)

"Or if you are a brilliant neurosurgeon, ruthlessly cool and focused under pressure, you might, like the man I'll call Dr. Geraghty, try your luck on a completely different playing field: at the remote outposts of 21st-century medicine, where risk blows in on 100-mile-per-hour winds and the oxygen of deliberation is thin. 'I have no compassion for those whom I operate on,' he told me. 'That is a luxury I simply cannot afford. In the theater I am reborn: as a cold, heartless machine, totally at one with scalpel, drill and saw. When you're cutting loose and cheating death high above the snowline of the brain, feelings aren't fit for purpose. Emotion is entropy -- and seriously bad for business. I've hunted it down to extinction over the years.' ...

"Psychopaths are fearless, confident, charismatic, ruthless and focused. Yet, contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily violent. Far from its being an open-and-shut case -- you're either a psychopath or you're not -- there are, instead, inner and outer zones of the disorder: a bit like the fare zones on a subway map. There is a spectrum of psychopathy along which each of us has our place. ...  

"[In a test designated as Case 1, subjects were told they could save five lives, but to do so they had to flip a switch that would kill one person. In Case 2, they could also save five lives, but they could only do so by pushing another person to his death.] Just like most normal members of the population, psychopaths make pretty short work of the dilemma presented in Case 1. Yet -- and this is where the plot thickens -- quite unlike normal people [who have difficulty with Case 2 because it is more personal], they also make pretty short work of Case 2. Psychopaths, without batting an eye, are perfectly happy to [push that person to his death].

"To compound matters further, this difference in behavior is mirrored, rather distinctly, in the brain. The pattern of neural activation in both psychopaths and normal people is well matched on the presentation of impersonal moral dilemmas -- but dramatically diverges when things get a bit more personal.

"Imagine that I were to pop you into a functional MRI machine and then present you with the two dilemmas. What would I observe as you went about negotiating their moral minefields? Just around the time that the nature of the dilemma crossed the border from impersonal to personal, I would see your amygdala and related brain circuits -- your medial orbitofrontal cortex, for example -- light up like a pinball machine. I would witness the moment, in other words, that emotion puts its money in the slot. But in a psychopath, I would see only darkness. The cavernous neural casino would be boarded up and derelict -- the crossing from impersonal to personal would pass without any incident. ... 

" 'Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second,' one successful CEO told me. 'Remember, they don't call it a greasy pole for nothing. The road to the top is hard. But it's easier to climb if you lever yourself up on others. Easier still if they think something's in it for them.'

"Jon Moulton, one of London's most successful venture capitalists, agrees. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he lists determination, curiosity and insensitivity as his three most valuable character traits.

"No prizes for guessing the first two. But insensitivity? The great thing about insensitivity, Moulton explains, is that 'it lets you sleep when others can't.' "


Kevin Dutton


"What Psychopaths Teach Us About How to Succeed"


Scientific American


October 2012
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