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One lazy day this summer, having read about socio/psychopaths being highly successful as CEOs, my teenager asked me it was really true that there are many of them out there. I acknowledged it happens and tried explaining as far as I understood. My didactic thoughts on toxic and good leadership fell short of the teen imagination because weeks later, having scanned the internet and poured through our old university texts, he broached the subject again. What he shared was an insightful glimpse at pop thinking. Ironically, there appears to be both blatant and tacit appreciation for disordered personalities in the workplace. More to the point, it seems our inchoate workforce are being exposed to the ideas that personality traits of socio and/or psychopaths are something to admire and even aspire to as a model or means to success.
I cannot offer scientific proof that a trend is occurring, but instead offer the supposition that is worth taking a good look at how the concept of wannabe socio/psychopath CEO intersects with current and future pools of job applicants. If personality disorders, mimicked or innate, are being seen as a way to get ahead, despite the widely known hallmarks of narcissism and egocentrism, then it’s worth looking at the implications this may have for the future of the very public service of policing.
Not long after that illuminating conversation, I was reading an author’s note at the end of The Malice of Fortune. A particular paragraph jumped at me off the page. I won’t divulge the novel’s storyline, but must first explain the book entertains intriguing elements of Machiavelli’s admiration (as well as distaste and later condemnation in Discourses) for the Duke Valentino’s persona (aka Cesare Borgia). The Duke was later immortalized as Machiavelli’s “Prince”. Ennis, who is a historian, comments on the plethora of documentation showing Valentino was what we would call a psychopath in today’s world. Yet, he was stylized as the epitome of a necessary evil … for the times (i.e., 16thC Italy when chaos reigned supreme between city-states). Context is critically important because he lived in a world where free republics were still dreams, pre-dating the rebirth of democracy through the French and American revolutions.
Connecting this to my thoughts about wannabe disordered CEOs, Ennis notes that with all of the Duke’s antisocial tendencies:
“Valentino was the first modern leader, his conscience-free, lethal expedience providing a remarkably effective and enduring template for sociopaths seeking power in any time, place, or organization; the same amoral realpolitik that has guided mass-murdering dictators is now studied by corporate CEOs and marketed as career advice for middle-management schemers.” (p.393)
Ennis suggests a trend is in progress, linking the socio/psychopathic leader to the 21st Century. This may or may not be conjecture, but it is terrifying all the same; especially given that the Prince was extolled as a necessary evil in ruthless, pre-democratic times. Yet, what remains shockingly lost is that the Prince was not actually the preferred ideal. Rather, he was imperfect in the context of a free world model (refer to Machiavelli’s discourses on radical egalitarianism in The Prince and The Discourses, as well as Machiavellis True Views, The Discourses vs. The Prince).
Personally, I think Machiavelli had an ingenious talent for reading people. If I were on the path to CEO-hood, I would re-read The Prince; to understand socio/psychopaths as leaders, not to become one.
Has a fad emerged, creating a trend? Last year, a psychologist I know included me on a blast-out article about executive sociopaths, claiming “Hey! For all you sociopaths, it’s now okay to be one!” (Really?) Popular links between socio and/or psychopaths and CEOs has become mainstream. Not surprisingly, it’s so common that it appears as regular repertoire in the Dilbert comic strip series; the ultimate dysfunctional workplace. When satire happens, it’s a good indication we ought to pay attention to the reality.
Consider the eager young professional developing a career strategy. Surfing the internet, with no dearth of information extolling “attributes” of the sociopathic CEO (e.g., Forbes: Why some psychopaths make great execs). Granted, there are equally many articles and interviews on the need to guard against socio and psychopathic traits and types in the workplace (e.g., Faculty Research in Progress ), but what’s startling are the undertones of the “sexier”, more youthfully appealing sites that appear to tacitly endorse acceptance of the sociopathic persona, simply because they hold out promises of success. For some, they strike the deeper chords, pitching to and/or portraying people who are already successful (e.g., Popular business courses for execs, Forbes: Machiavellian business lessons from a billionaire, Machiavelli on modern leadership , as well as myriad Youtube videos). Cool?
While a long-term foothold in executive boardrooms by these wannabes may not be pervasive, there is still potential for havoc and caterwauling anywhere it is left to proliferate. What ought to be clarified are the differences between “monsters” and leaders. This, it seems to me, overlaps the toxic leadership conversation.
We know toxic leadership exists and prevails. Many of us have witnessed its effects. We may be taking steps to get past the horror stories, injustices, and weeding out the caustic individuals, but if a movement is afoot where disordered personality traits are being revered, then it’s plausible others are grooming themselves in the wings to fill those vacancies. These wannabes, however, may be better armed with articulated purpose, and not so easy to weed out.
Are the possibilities of this happening in policing any different than in executive boardrooms? Current police/rank structures both allow and deter the promotion of personality disordered candidates. The difficulty is recognizing them when there is a blurring of lines; when they are particularly adept at manipulation. And then what do you do once they’ve achieved their aims and are confirmed in ranks?
What is particularly relevant to the policing culture is whether we are succeeding at pointing out the differences between acceptable and egregious traits or behaviours among personnel, and whether more needs to be done. Wannabe or actual socio/psychopath CEOs in private business may or may not wane, depending on the power of economic times, but, as with all things, we need to be mindful of what will shape the future of public service, law enforcement, and policing in entirety.
The bologna? You’d have to ask Machiavelli.
“Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
(Retired Strategic LE Planner)