Is Empathy Bad For CEOs ? The Psychopath Advantage


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When I read this article, questioning the value of empathy for good leadership, I thought it was good food for thought as it is challenging the status quo. Nowadays it is almost considered blasphemy to dismiss empathy and other “people skills” as good CEOs’ personality traits

According to Brad Stone, a journalist and author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon Amazon is very prosperous despite the fact that its CEO, Jeff Bezos, lacks empathy and as a result, treats workers as expendable resources without taking into account their contributions.

It seems that some successful CEOs not only have no empathy but sometimes have many traits shared by psychopaths according to a Forbes’ article focused on the research of British journalist Jon Ronson Why (some) psychopaths make great CEOs

Psychopaths lack the things that make you human: empathy, remorse, loving kindness. According to Ronson, the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is four times what it is in the general population.

study, conducted by the New York psychologist Paul Babiak, suggests that psychopaths are actually poor managerial performers but are adept at climbing the corporate ladder because they can cover up their weaknesses by subtly charming superiors and subordinates. This makes it almost impossible to distinguish between a genuinely talented team leader and a psychopath, Babiak said.

Where greed is considered good and profit-making is the most important value, psychopaths can thrive. (Quote from TIME.Com)

Regarding lack of empathy as a weakness, the argument seems logic when there is job scarcity during an economic crisis and when the CEO’s main job is to do massive layoffs and cut expenses to maximize shareholder value. 

But how about companies that need to innovate to strive, don’t they need collaborative leadership and therefore need bosses who have empathy ?

Considering Steve Jobs or Jack Welch, known for not being especially empathetic,  it seems that empathy is not mandatory to be a successful CEO even in innovation-driven companies.

In conclusion, I think empathy may not be necessary only when leaders have to manage-up with little interactions with people who do the jobs dealing with customers on a daily basis, especially when the impact of the employees cannot be seen immediately on the bottom line. I do think that disengaged and threatened employees cost more in the long run even without considering lawsuits.

What Is your Experience ?

How Did You Manage A Boss Who Lacked Empathy ?

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2 thoughts on “Is Empathy Bad For CEOs ? The Psychopath Advantage

  1. carol shi June 26, 2015 at 3:14 pm Reply

    hello, i came across your blog when i am writing my paper about psychopaths,here are some opinions from me

    your topic is about CEO,in the end ,your conclusion you refer to leaders. I want to point out that there are differences between.
    CEO:normally ,they are not approachable by employees individually except managers ,instead they receive report about how is going on down there.(yes,some CEO could prefer to do a field trip or something)
    leaders:it’s not exclusively refer to CEO, for example,leaders can be the leading one in a project team,the ones needs EMPATHY to communicate with team members, the ones to bring the human resource strategy to alive. In the most cases, we call them line managers in the human resource field.

    In conclusion, you have unconsciously switch the subject you are talking about

    • Anne Egros, Global Executive Coach June 26, 2015 at 3:58 pm Reply

      Hello Carol,

      Thank you for your feedback. You are right CEOs deal with board members, business partners, define strategic agendas and look only at the bottom line. Some people have a broader definition of a CEO who needs leadership skills. Leadership means people and therefore means empathy. So agree that the psychopath advantage is only for CEOs who have very few interactions with people.

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