Let’s paint with some nuance up top, which I am sure some would argue is rare for me: “most” would need to mathematically imply “51 percent.” Do I think 51 percent of CEOs are sociopaths? In my own career, yes. Absolutely. In the broader world? No. The 2016 study/research that gets quoted a lot is about 21 percent are apparently sociopaths, which feels right overall. Funny, though: when The Washington Post covered that study in 2016, they added “Only 21 percent?” to the headline. I guffawed. I think, overall, 1 in about 5 feels accurate for “senior leader is a sociopath at some basic level.”
First question: Why?
Well, think about being a CEO in enterprise. You make some nice coin but I mean like, what is Jeff Bezos’ life really like? He theoretically is the top of a pyramid with 600,000 people in it. That’s insane. They probably have about 35 business units. If you wanted to, you could never sleep. It’s the same as being President of a country, honestly. You need to be a little bit different psychologically to even want to scale or inherit something like that.
Also, if we’re being semi-clinical about what a sociopath is, they often do have good social skills — which executives need, because they gotta broker deals and sell stuff. But additionally:
- They crave validation
- They crave recognition
- They are self-centered
- They have high levels of entitlement
- It’s easy for them to dismiss the feelings of others
Phrased in other terms:
- Meaningless vanity metrics
- Ego for days
- They think the world should revolve around their widgets
Could we ever change this?
No. There will always be some. But the good news of “the free market” is that you can job-hop and try to navigate to a place where the senior leadership team is more functional. Typically the bigger of a place, the less this is a possible reality. Usually smaller places are more functional in terms of ego control, narcissism, and sociopathy — but I mean, I’ve worked at places with 48 employees where the top dogs were running around with no idea what was happening crushing souls on the bi-weekly regular. So, it’s a mix.
Family-owned vs. public vs. private vs. investor-heavy all weighs in, too. The hardest part about being a top leader in a business is that you know, as a human, that things like “empathy” matter … but you’re under tremendous financial pressure in some of these situations. Investors are just pressurized debt. So I mean, like, yea, you’re going to make decisions around that, because you want your own family to have food. And those decisions will seem, or even truly be, sociopathic to those around you. I don’t think there’s any real path off or away from that.
Also remember: a man can make about $842,000 in their career by being less agreeable with others. That’s almost an additional $1M. Think on that.
My personal last couple of gigs
I’d say yes, no, yes, yes, yes going back my last five gigs. So that’s 80 percent. The one I’d rank “no” was a consultant poached to do a turnaround job as a CEO. He was often in over his head and used lots of buzzwords that no one except his lieutenants actually understood, but he was nice and he tried to do things to “humanize” the workplace.
My gig in 2014–2015 was a true sociopath. Literally every box a sociopath can check, he checks. But … within his industry and often his company, he’s revered. It’s tied to luxury travel so the lieutenants get to take 4–5 fancy trips per year, which I am sure helps. But I mean, the dude is a fucking sociopath. I’ve watched a lot of true crime, took classes on it in college, and generally appreciate different aspects of the human condition. He fit the bill. But hey, the business worked and he was liked within it, so who am I really to judge?
What’s your number perception? 20 or higher?