Psychopaths & Sycophants

Leaders need followers, right? It doesn’t follow that anyone who doesn’t lead is a follower but what if a subset of leaders are psychopathic – or at least antisocial and unburdened by conscience – while a subset of followers are sycophantic – those who are willing to please leaders in exchange for power and privilege, or even the promise or proximity of power and privilege?

What if the two groups are symbiotic? You need those who forgo the respect of self and peers to achieve privilege to be willing to carry out the desires of those psychopaths who have power and no, or little, conscience. Both groups consider other people and other people’s feelings expendable and differ in ways that make them necessary to each other’s success.

Identifying psychopaths is both difficult and easy. A mnemonic that can be used to remember the criteria for antisocial personality disorder, ordinarily considered to be the umbrella term that includes psychopaths, is “CORRUPT”:

C – cannot follow law
O – obligations ignored
R – remorselessness
R – recklessness
U – underhandedness
P – planning deficit and
T – temper.

Only three or more of these are viewed as necessary to point towards an antisocial personality disorder, so you can assess yourself and anyone else against the seven criteria – none of which require the individual to have killed or injured anyone. For those who want to delve deeper, you might want to consider Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, a 20 item evaluation list that identifies the 1%  of the human race who don’t have to struggle with their conscience because it is largely or wholly absent.

It’s something Kurt Vonnegut, the American novelist recognized where he described “psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences”. PPs get along because they “are presentable” and because “they are so decisive”. And. “unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they don’t give a **** what happens next…”

Vonnegut’s argument was focused on political leaders but his list of actions that have to be done every single day whatever the cost (and preferably where there is a cost, since the psychopath likes hurting others), is familiar to many who have worked in frenzied environments. You know, “Do this! Do that! Fire them! Buy ABN Ambro! Sell Orange! Cut Perks! Move the Company HQ! Cut the bottom 10 per cent! Reengineer! Six Sigma! Change! Change! Change!…”

So if Vonnegut was right, or even partially right, that “only nut cases want to be president,” to what extent is the same true of corporations? After all, it is easier to make painful decisions if you have no empathy for the pain of others. It’s also easier to be manipulative if you get off on the thrill-seeking. The more change that is going on, the more fun life is for the psychopath. Pro-social people need time to think of others – which leaves them vulnerable to attack.

And how more dangerous if the psychopathic leader is surrounded by sycophants – willing to overlook the greedy, illegal, or unethical as long as they share power and privilege. So ask yourself: How psychopathic are your leaders? How sycophantic are their supporters? And if you find yourself in a high PS/BS environment – what are you going to do about it?

About the Author
Max McKeown is an English writer, consultant, guru and researcher specialising in innovation, strategy, leadership, and culture. He is the author of six books, including The Strategy Book and Adaptability.


  1. Sandra says

    This is first time I read a post of yours..
    These environments exist merely in any modern corporations. While leaders are hungry for power their subordinates are just that “SUB”.
    My experience with this type of working environment ended hapily (for me) :-). After struggle with myself, struggle with managers and colleagues, who blindly follow and are ready to do anything, the only things left for me was either ‘to blend’ or to leave unhealthy environment. It is pitty that this type of behaviour is what people expect and they just play along for all sorts of reasons.
    I know I would never work at any corporation again…