Does being a psychopath help you start a company?

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.

3 thoughts on “Does being a psychopath help you start a company?

  1. You might enjoy this post Entrepreneurs: Psychopaths or Just Crazy? written after a study actually linked entrepreneurs to psychopathic behavior (really!).

  2. ranndino

    In my experience with CEO's of startups so far all of them have been extremely impulsive decision makers who exhibited no signs of carefully weighing options & fearlessly dominated every conversation. It seemed to be a point for them to take decision as quickly as possible (often before even understanding any of the complexities) & then back it up by sticking to their decision no matter what.

    Personally these types of people really annoy me & it's one of the reasons I didn't like Bush & I do like Obama. The first was "the decider", but didn't take time to think things through even when his decisions impacted millions of lives (war in Iraq is the best example) while Obama seems to carefully examine all the options before coming to a decision. Being a true intellectual is his biggest flaw for his detractors, in my opinion. Unfortunately, among many this country has a very anti-intellectual streak. They seem to prefer a jock / frat boy type in charge.

  3. I can't find the original study, which I always think is important when reading these sexy, controversial headlines by secondary sources. They often misinterpret the actual findings of the study to make the premise seem more provocative and controversial. Or sometimes there is something faulty in the original study methodology that must be taken into account.

    For example there were a ton of studies years ago about how narcissism can have good effects, and other studies talking about how too much self-esteem can lead to arrogance, manipulative behavior in relationships, and even criminal lifestyle. But it turned out that there was a logical fallacy in such studies. They conflated self-esteem and narcissism, and measured traits that appeared in both toxic narcissism and healthy self-esteem and used that as their measuring stick.

    For example, someone who is a functional leader with healthy self-esteem may like to initiate leadership roles, think highly of his abilities, and is extroverted. A dysfunctional leader with toxic narcissism may also like to initiate leadership roles, think highly of his abilities and is extroverted. The narcissistic dysfunctional leader however may also be manipulative, blame others for all things that go wrong, be delusional about his actual skill level, and like to play needless mind games. But if the study is only measuring for the traits of narcissism that also appear in normal people with high self-esteem, then it's a flawed methodology. That is what many later studies that came out afterward put forth.

    Now when there are narcissism articles, they make sure to control for healthy assertiveness and self-esteem when measuring narcissism.

    So I have a similar skepticism about these "psychopathy may be good" articles. Are they measuring true psychopathy, or just isolating a few traits that psychopaths happen to share with healthy, aggressive go-getters, and thereby unintentionally including non-psychopaths in their analysis pool?

    For example fearless dominance alone isn't enough to say that the Presidents displayed psychopathy. Was there also a callous lack of empathy? manipulativeness? Exploitative relationships and conniving?

    Again, I didn't read the article for myself yet, but take it with a grain of salt until you do deeper research into how they measured psychopathy.

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