Leadership skills?

In our hyper-driven and competitive culture, gaining access to the elite “C-suite” of a corporation, and the money and power that engenders, is highly coveted. Ambition, drive, hard work, and a certain degree of ruthlessness are regarded as essential qualities in an aspiring leader and traits necessary for someone working his or her way to the top. However, two interesting commentaries on leadership and advancement in the professional world have recently questioned these qualities and brought to light their similarities to two seemingly very different life paths.

In the first, journalist Jon Ronson makes the claim that top business leaders are four times more likely to have psychopathic tendencies than the normal population. In his new book The Psychopath Test, also brilliantly re-told on This American Life, he claims that 4% of business leaders demonstrate psychopathic tendencies, as compared to 1% of the normal population. He attributes this to a significantly less active amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear and emotion. In psychopaths, or potentially CEOs, fear and empathy are diminished, enabling them to act selfishly or in the spirit of Machiavelli, if you will. Abnormal amygdala responses allow them to take risks and ruthless measures to get ahead and leave them disinhibited from the feelings of guilt, apprehension, or remorse that most of us would feel after firing employees or conning someone out of their money.

In his book he interviews Al Dunlap, the CEO of Sunbeam toasters and a man known for his cut-throatness and proclivity for firing people with glee. Ronson informally administers the classic PCL-R (Psychopath Checklist-Revised) to Dunlap, on which he scores higher than normal, though not high enough to register as a true psychopath. However, Dunlap does manages to turn nearly every item he answers affirmatively to into a positive quality for business. For instance, reinterpreting “a grandiose sense of self-worth” as “believing in yourself”, and “lack of remorse” as “freeing yourself up to move forward and achieve more”.

While the claim that most CEOs are secret psychopaths may not hold true, a second theory does carry more weight. Originally raised in neuroscientist Dr. David Linden’s new book on pleasure, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, and reiterated recently in an opinion piece for the New York Times, Linden makes the comparison between addictive personality traits and leadership skills. He cites compulsivity, risk taking, and a depletion in pleasure as tendencies that could be utilized to facilitate perfectionism, a push towards new financial ventures, and an unwillingness to settle in business. However these traits can easily manifest disadvantageously in society’s leaders, the most obvious example being the poor risky decisions made in the financial and political sectors that resulted in the global recession.

Additionally, it is not only these personality traits that drug users and innovative leaders have in common. Paradoxically, many of the creative geniuses and political and financial authorities of our time have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their careers. Indeed, it would be surprising for these men and women to apply their sensation seeking tendencies towards only one aspect of their lives, and thus it is not uncommon for influential leaders and those in power to abuse drugs or alcohol. A new book on cocaine use, The Anatomy of Addiction by Dr. Howard Markel, has brought these tendencies to light using Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, as a prime example. In addition to Freud, Linden also lists Winston Churchill, Aldous Huxley, and Alexander the Great, as well as countless others, as examples of leaders who have struggled with addiction. However, it is important to note that most of these writers, CEOs, dignitaries, and geniuses were not on drugs at the moment of their breakthroughs.

I am not one to criticize drug taking or experimentation, but I am against the romanticization of these habits that can so easily become dangerous compulsions (compulsivity is clinically referred to as the persistence of a behavior despite negative consequences). Light experimentation with mind-altering substances is often cited as having provided inspiration and cognitive expansion perhaps not otherwise possible in our daily world. However, truly addictive drugs such as cocaine or opiates rarely provide these experiences without some potentially devastating long-term consequences. It is possible to maintain a recreational relationship with some of these substances, however it is a slippery slope that should be rappelled with extreme caution. The personality traits of curiosity and the desire for exploration, both personal and intellectual, do seem to foster innovation and creativity, and compulsivity can be analogous to perfectionism or a relentless drive for success. However, compulsivity can also lead an individual from exploratory recreational use to drug abuse and dependence, and it is important to keep in mind that those individuals who created corporate, creative or intellectual masterpieces while on drugs may have done so in spite of, not because of their addictions.

(Thanks to Tanner Brown for the Sam Harris link)

2 thoughts on “Leadership skills?

  1. I’m never too keen when people bring in evidence on the amygdala into discussions about, say, increased risk taking. Like the hippocampus, the amygdala does an awful lot of things besides mediating (certain aspects of) fear and the putative consequences of abnormal amygdala function don’t seem to be properly thought through. For instance, the BLA has been proposed to represent the affective responses to goals and outcomes, so how does this fit in with theories about CEOs and business leaders?

    • You’re completely right Mark, there’s a lot of different things going on that we still don’t understand, particularly in subcortical regions such as the amygdala. I’m certainly not arguing here that all CEO’s have atypical amygdala responses manifesting as psychopathic tendencies. Rather, the disproportionate number of executive leaders who demonstrate behaviors that are similar to these traits, or even score higher on assessments such as the PCL-R, might suggest that there is something different in these (or a small subset) of these individuals.

      Psychopaths are known to have both diminished amygdala volume, as well as decreased activity in the amygdala in response to typical fear or negative affective cues. This blunted response to these stimuli (some of which are really quite horrifying) is hypothesized to be at the root of some of their antisocial behaviors. Of course there are other structures involved in this behavioral circuitry, the PFC/OFC’s role in inhibition being a prime example. However, given the amygdalas role in fear and emotion, as well as goal responses and learning as you mentioned, it would seem a place to potentially look for differences seen in CEOs as compared to the rest of the population at large.

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