Your Leader Might be a Sociopath

I’ve been naïve.

For years, I’ve promoted the virtues of kindness as a fundamental trait for great leaders. I’ve poked holes in the thin idea that nice guys finish last. And I’ve begged on my knees to bring civility back to leadership. All this because I’ve always believed all humans have the capacity to JUST. BE. NICE.

Then, I found a book called The Sociopath Next Door, by Dr. Martha Stout, and it blew up everything I knew. It turns out, there’s a subset of people who couldn’t give a flip about being nice. We call them sociopaths.

Taking a broad view, sociopaths:

  • Lack a conscience and can’t process emotional experiences.
  • Do anything they want and feel no guilt.
  • Are 1 in 25 Americans: our friends, loved-ones, co-workers and leaders.
  • Are not necessarily violent, but do seek to dominate.
  • Can simultaneously charm and humiliate to get what they want, without you knowing.
  • Take zero ownership for their actions.
  • See nothing wrong with their behavior.
  • Are almost impossible to identify.

This was revealing and sobering. What has my total attention is their real, prevalent, yet invisible threat to our everyday lives.

Reflecting on my career, my greatest challenges are now in focus. I see leaders I couldn’t positively influence, who “got away with murder,” and who I helplessly watched damage those they were charged with leading.

Were they sociopaths? Was I the loser in their destructive games? Did I help hide the bodies? Hard to know. As I discovered, they don’t exactly self-identify and they have no defining characteristics. They look like you and me.

Scarier still, we seek traits in leaders that sociopaths tend to display – like, controlling, directing, boldness, charisma, risk-taking. Further, we don’t test for conscience or empathy, the unseen traits of leaders who won’t seek to harm us.

Because they’re virtually invisible, I worry sociopaths will continue conning their way into leadership roles, undetected until it’s too late.

If we are unwitting players in their guiltless game what are we to do? There is a compelling argument to suppress the nice gene and drop to their level. Otherwise, being nice could place you in the crosshairs of the invisibly corrupt and you will finish last.

Or, perhaps there is an alternate ending where we shield ourselves and preserve our humanity. As a first line of defense, Dr. Stout suggests we “accept the bitter pill that some people literally have no conscience.”

Once we’ve accepted our new normal, what’s next? We protect ourselves:

Suspect flattery

Flattery appeals to our egos in unrealistic ways. It’s the material of counterfeit charm, and involves an intent to manipulate.

Question authority

Trust your instincts concerning people who claim any violation of your conscience is the grand solution to some problem.

Don’t join the game

Resist the temptation to compete, outsmart, psychoanalyze, or banter with a sociopath.

Redefine your concept of respect

Often, we mistake fear for respect. The more fearful we are of someone, the more we view them as deserving our respect.

Don’t try to redeem the unredeemable

Second chances are for people who possess a conscience. Swallow hard and cut your losses.

Never agree to conceal their true character

“Please don’t tell.” Ignore this siren song. People deserve to be warned more than sociopaths deserve to have their secrets kept.

As I warily accept a world where some people are simply hardwired evil, I still feel a tug for something more.

The rules of morality are simple and absolute. Empathy is a gift. Civility is a virtue. They make living with other people possible and worthwhile. As humans, we also have the benefit of free will. Meaning, we still get to choose how we show up - at home, at work, and at play. So, while we’re protecting ourselves let’s also choose kindness.

Even if we are preyed on by the unscrupulous among us, our choice can be to cut ourselves some slack, learn from it, and follow our moral code.

Sociopathy is a real threat - and it really sucks - but it isn’t the end of kindness.