Crazy at the wheel: psychopathic CEOs are rife in Silicon Valley, experts say
Attributes of a psychopath can be good for running a business, says SXSW panel, but weak HR departments and investors can enable bad behavior
By Olivia Solon
Mar 15 2017
There is a high proportion of psychopathic CEOs in Silicon Valley, enabled by protective investors and weak human resources departments, according to a panel of experts at SXSW festival.
Although the term “psychopath” typically has negative connotations, some of the attributes associated with the disorder can be advantageous in a business setting.
“A true psychopath is someone that has a blend of emotional, interpersonal, lifestyle and behavioral deficits but an uncanny ability to mask them. They come across as very charming, very gregarious. But underneath there’s a profound lack of remorse, callousness and a lack of empathy,” said forensic and clinical psychologist Michael Woodworth, who has worked with psychopathic murderers in high security prisons, on Tuesday.
“They have certain characteristics like fearless dominance, boldness and a lack of emotion. Many successful presidents have scored highly [on the psychopathy scale],” said Woodworth.
According to recent studies there’s a high prevalence of psychopathy among high-level executives in a corporate environment: 4-8% compared with 1% in the general population.
This makes sense, according to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bryan Stolle because “it’s an irrational act to start a company”.
“You have to have a tremendous amount of ego [and] self-deception to embark on that journey,” he said. “You have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people. So they are mostly very charismatic, charming and make you suspend the disbelief that something can’t be done.”
However, the positive attributes are accompanied by manipulation.
“One of the main things that makes them extremely difficult to organisations is their willingness to manipulate through deception,” said Jeff Hancock, a Stanford social scientist who studies psychopathy.
“Psychopaths will handpick people they can use as lackeys or supporters, such as someone in HR they can have in their wheelhouse,” said Woodworth.