Anthony Hilton: Psychopaths in the boardroom

One of the more challenging suggestions to emerge this week is that there are more psychopaths in British company boardrooms than there are in our mental hospitals.

That might be a tough one to prove, but apparently you are at least three times more likely to meet a psychopath in the higher echelons of business than you are in the population at large. In any company of 1,000 employees there should be about ten - and the most fruitful place to look for them is in the executive suite.

These insights come courtesy of Holly Andrews of the Worcester Business School.

Psychopaths have to make a living like the rest of us, given that only a handful flip and commit murder, and according to Andrews they do well because their characteristics align so very closely with the skills required for business leadership. They have a superficial charm, which can be mistaken for charisma; they are prone to grandiosity, which equates with self-confidence; they are manipulative, which means they can influence colleagues. It's a thin line between being a con artist and being persuasive, or being a fantasist and being a visionary thinker. Distinguish between those willing to take risks and those who are impulsive; those who can take tough decisions and those who suffer from emotional poverty.

Now it is understood in the comms business that familiarity tends to be associated with favourability. It is also understood that the quickest way to get a firm on the map is to get its chief executive noticed.

The trouble is that trying to impress the media leads to an emphasis on many of those traits that so easily cut both ways. Media judgements are usually quickly formed and superficial. How many times have journalists fallen for people who with hindsight should never have been let near the levers of power?

When they get to the boardroom, the tell-tale signs are poor people management, weak planning, unethical behaviour, lack of loyalty and a refusal to learn from mistakes. Trouble is, that seems to apply to a lot of people. Are they really psychopaths or just useless?

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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