Grant Spencer

Business leaders and psychopathy: Change the rules instead of changing you?

Image: American Pyscho/Lionsgate Films

Approx Reading Time-10The current political and business system makes victims of us all, right? Well, only if you let it, for that same system allows great philanthropism too.




Who’s that guy, behind the closed door labelled “Manager”? Who’s that guy you never see, save for a quick journey to your desk to point out your failings? Do you suspect he has a soft spot for Huey Lewis and the News? Maybe you’ve not heard of American Psycho.

You may also have heard that there is a tendency among leaders in business to have higher ratings on the scale of psychopathy. This does not mean your boss is going to get you drunk and “show off their new raincoat…”

Rather, it means they are less challenged by making decisions that will negatively impact the well-being of a number of people in order to best benefit business. I’ve recently been challenged with the consideration of what it takes to not only make brave decisions, but to make them regularly and against the tide. I started with the consideration of what is often observed by the nine-to-five worker: executive management making decisions that just seem without regard for their fellow man.

In the grand culture of the Australian Tall Poppy Syndrome, it would be easy to demonise them as unfeeling monsters. Leaders of business, strip mining the economy only to throw the remainders of us the remainders, as if to reinforce an idea numerous Liberal Party members have suggested: that if you want a better life, get a better job. This is an impressively distorted reductionism that looks at a business hierarchy flow chart and considers that utopia will somehow follow if everybody were to stop being lazy and work hard. We could all be white collar professionals and poverty would be abolished. Concordantly, if we “choose” to work a low-skilled job, we should be prepared to deal with the gnawed financial bones.

The central problem here is that the only way business can turn a profit for its shareholders is by cutting back on the pay of their staff. It has been proven time and again that trickle-down economics does not exist. More money being made by the upper classes does not equate to the improved standard of living of the working classes.

So, why am I ranting about the failings of capitalism when I began discussing psychopathy?


It’s not just about the pleasures of a touch-screen and the importance of schooling, it’s also a personal statement… (Image: American Pyscho/Lionsgate Films)

Admirable leaders make decisions to push ahead the success of a business, based on a system that relies on the idea that this business model is necessary for social successes: how will you afford that private school, that new smartphone?

“This is life though, right? This is what we have to deal with so you might as well accept that and move on.” If that is the defensive rationale that immediately came to mind, then you have further illustrated the problem; consider: how can a tight budget afford for you to eat if you don’t rely on the price of sweatshop-produced clothing or goods? We are surrounded by daily decisions that reinforce themselves but are far removed from some inherent concept of personality type.

I would argue that the increasing pressure to wring the workforce dry for profit will increase the need for psychopaths making more emotionless decisions, but that equation seems almost as clear cut as math.

This does not suggest that all business leaders are psychopaths. They might be courageous, not fearless. Fearlessness is the capacity to take large risks without any capacity to feel the consequences, whereas courageousness is the capacity to understand the impact of a large risk but to be able to assign meaning to the bigger picture (which may be believed as the best decision in the long term regardless of short-term emotional impact).

It’s time we start thinking beyond personal agency and bring into focus the incessant pressure to follow the many arbitrarily assigned rules by which we are surrounded, to have some empathy for those who are less fortunate.

It is a potential realised so very rarely and actioned so very selectively, but the capitalist system does have an incredible potential to provide a system of philanthropy to adjust the inequalities in society. Social entrepreneurs will most likely be the most important figures of social change in the coming decades. So all that is left to ask is: if you are in a position of power, what are you doing to influence a change to rules, rather than considering what can change within you?

I am not calling for a revolution. I am far too much of a coward. But here is my personal, small step that illustrates what I’m suggesting:

As a psychologist, I offer bulk-billing services to those who are in financial need, and often provide a sliding scale of my private fee to those on low incomes. This may mean that I have less time to see people who would be able to provide me a more lavish lifestyle, but I accept that small sacrifice so that the people who most need support have access to it. It’s a safe step. I am no socialist. However, I do believe it’s time that we all start thinking beyond personal agency and bring into focus the incessant pressure to follow the many arbitrarily assigned rules by which we are surrounded by every day, and use that awareness to have some empathy for those who are less fortunate.

Not all leaders are psychopaths. They might be courageous, not fearless. Fearlessness is the capacity to take risks without capacity to feel consequences…courageousness is to understand the impact of risk but to assign meaning.

I don’t see much personal agency in people who are stranded within mortgages and the desire for nice shoes. I am lost in that fog. Where do I see power in the psychological investigation of personality? The possibility for continued action outside the currents of the status quo – a power I readily admit that I have lost.

Also on The Big Smoke

Activism is often left to people who may well have the same drives as those with personality disorders. Consider Fritz Haber, driven to both incredible heights and shocking lows by the same basic self interest. You can fall down the Wikipedia Hole with him if you need more information; in short: he both saved millions and deliberately maimed almost as many.

So. To worry about your boss? To not worry about your boss? Up to you. But consider exactly what kind of person we need to save us. I’m starting to believe it might be important to keep them on a short leash.

As for me…I’m going to my room to unironically listen to Rage Against the Machine and scowl.


Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

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