I recently wrote about how being a jerk isn’t the best way to maintain high standards:
Yet this isn’t to say that bad behavior is always detrimental to starting a company.
Indeed, given the odds, some level of delusion is a necessity for
entrepreneurs–after all, only 6 out of every 1,000 entrepreneurs who seek angel funding are going to make money for investors.
Now comes a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
that many of America’s best presidents displayed psychopathic behavior patterns.
“Psychopath-like characteristics, especially fearless dominance, are
linked to low social and physical apprehensiveness — personality traits
that have been correlated with better-rated presidents in terms of their
leadership skills, persuasiveness, crisis management and Congressional
The analysis found that Theodore Roosevelt ranked
highest in fearless dominance, followed by John F. Kennedy, Franklin D.
Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Rutherford Hayes, Zachary Taylor, Bill
Clinton, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and George W. Bush.”
Interestingly enough, all the well-known presidents on the list (we’ll
leave aside Hayes, Taylor, and Van Buren for now) were and are both
incredibly loved and loathed, depending on your political bent. That “fearless dominance” translated into aggressive and transformative policies, including the Apollo project (Kennedy), the New Deal (FDR), a massive military build-up (Reagan), destroying the Bank of the United States (Jackson) and so on.
Fearless dominance also comes to
mind when considering startup leaders like Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison,
as well as recent entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, all of whom pursued their businesses with ruthless (and often frightening) dedication.
being said, don’t run out and start taking lessons from Season 6 of
Dexter just yet–note that our two greatest presidents, who are
universally loved, don’t make the list.
You could hardly find
better models for non-psychopathic leadership than George Washington and
Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, the history of Silicon Valley includes
great leaders like Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett (the founders of the
Valley!) who excelled as human beings as well as leaders.
To me, the key seems to be figuring out how to disentangle the “fearless” from the “dominance.” The truly great leaders are fearless, and that gives them the courage to lead by authentic persuasion, rather than fiat.
George Washington famously quelled an incipient revolt by his army’s officers with a single speech:
“Before reading the letter, Washington, in an almost apologetic tone
said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of
my country and now find that I am growing blind.” The eyes of most of
his audience filled with tears. The content of the letter became
irrelevant as the assembled officers realized that Washington had given
as much or more in the service of the new nation as any of them. Within
minutes, the officers voted unanimously to express confidence in
Congress and their country.”
If the only way for you to feel fearless is to exert dominance, it may be that “fearless dominance” is your path to psychopathic success. But if you have true courage and wisdom, you’ll be an even greater leader.