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Psychopaths in power: Why toxic people easily reach the top spots

According to psychologists, psychopathic traits are very common in successful leaders, since their own disorder helps them thrive

Psicología Narcisista Psicópata
Ricardo Tomás

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In DisConnected, Steve Taylor talks about how narcissists and psychopaths are often found in positions of power — be it political, business or otherwise. Taylor, who is professor of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, uses the term “pathocracy” to describe countries or organizations that are controlled by these kinds of people, who have little or no empathy for the suffering caused by their decisions.

Taylor believes this cruelty is a result of their disconnection from humanity. It is the polar opposite of compassion, which allows us to connect with the suffering of others. Leaders who are narcissists or psychopaths rule in a patriarchal and hierarchical way, and have a warlike attitude against those who oppose them. Everyone will be able to think of more than one example — some painfully relevant — that fits this model.

In his book The Wisdom of Psychopaths, psychologist Kevin Dutton also argued that psychopathic traits are very common in successful leaders, since their own disorder helps them to thrive. According to the Oxford and Cambridge researcher, leaders of pathocracies share the following eight traits:

Social influence. Narcissists and most psychopaths love the spotlight. They handle themselves well in front of the public, who see them as charismatic.

Fearlessness. What the average citizen would not dare to say, the disconnected leader will express naturally. The same thing goes for his actions, which is why this type of leader usually undertakes risky endeavors.

Immune to stress. These leaders thrive on difficulties, protests and disputes, they like to swim against the current. They feel at home surrounded by chaos. This gives them a competitive advantage over softer opponents.

Machiavellian egocentrism. Whoever leads a pathocracy is looking to carve out their place in history, regardless of what it will cost the victims, who are considered collateral damage for a greater good.

Rebellious nonconformity. This trait is seen in Eduard Limonov, the founder of the National Bolshevik Party, who is described by his biographer Emmanuel Carrère as having a dangerous lack of concern about the results of his actions. The attempted invasion of Russia by Napoleon or Hitler are another two well-known examples.

Coldness. Steve Taylor uses the term disconnection to explain these leaders’ lack of sensitivity towards the suffering of others, something that someone who is a victim of workplace harassment has first-hand experience of.

Curiously, many people tend to associate empathic people with being less effective. Perhaps that’s why in U.S. surveys, respondents negatively view the work of presidents considered “discreet” such as Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford, while leaders with the above traits are perceived as having the authority to solve problems.

When it comes to psychopaths, Taylor points out that many of them had a traumatic childhood, whether due to parental neglect or being witnesses or victims of violence. Once they have developed psychopathic behavior, many therapists believe it is almost impossible to treat them, precisely because they do not believe that they are wrong, much less sick. Taylor recommends meditation as a possible remedy to heal these people. However, the person must be able to pause, forget about the enemy outside and focus on a much more difficult and terrible foe: the one inside them.

Psychopaths can also be transformed by direct contact with the victims of their actions, as has been seen in meetings between terrorists and relatives of their victims. In these cases, the aggressor can no longer hide behind an idea, because they have before them a human being who could be their brother, daughter or themselves. This facilitates the miracle of connection.

Gandhi's letters to Hitler

Is it possible to move the heart of a pathocratic leader? History would suggest this cannot be done. In 1939, for example, Gandhi decided to write to Hitler after learning of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He began the letter with an empathetic: “Dear friend,” and asked: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?”

We do not know if the letter reached Hitler, who never responded, but a year later Gandhi tried again with a second letter, in which he begged Hitler to “end the war” by appealing to his sense of humanity. Both efforts failed, which suggests that convincing these kinds of people to reflect is no easy matter.

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