The Top 5 Psychopathic Traits of Effective Leaders

Psychopathic? The word can send shudders down your spine, yet alone inspire you to become a visionary and effective leader.

But it’s true…

There are psychopaths out there who function normally in society, and they’re likely to be high-powered individuals.

Dr. Robert D Hare, a criminal psychologist, believes that 3% of top-level management in the corporate environment are likely clinical psychopaths, compared to 1% in the general population.


Top 5 Psychopathic Traits of Effective Leaders

Great leaders have qualities that attract, inspire and move people, and they just so happen to be the same ones that psychopaths have. These are the top 5 psychopathic traits of effective leaders.


1. Reward and Goal Driven

Effective Leaders - Reward & Goal Driven

Psychopaths are incredibly reward driven, and will be 100% focused on their mission to attain that reward.

Dr. Kevin Dutton in his book ‘The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success‘ describes a research study where the performance of psychopaths and non-psychopaths was compared on a learning task.

It showed that psychopaths learn far more quickly compared to us normal folk when given a financial incentive.

However, when the experiment was changed such that the incentive was replaced with a small electric shock, their learning rate equaled the normal test subjects. The findings reflect a difference in mindset, and that can be easily adopted.

When you think about a task or a goal, do you think about the pain and hassle?

Dutton states that psychopaths will “focus on the prospect of gain rather than that of loss”, and therein lies a difference between psychopaths and us. Effective leaders will set a vision, a goal, and not worry about the obstacles.

The hurdles are inevitable, but you can’t let them get in the way. If you focus on how you can benefit, you’ll be far more incentivized and motivated than if you think about what you’ll lose.


2. Persuasive and Charming

Effective Leaders - Persuasive & Charming

A key trait of psychopaths is their ability to charm and persuade.

Hare describes the psychopath’s ability by saying;

“He will choose you, disarm you with his words and control you with his presence. He will delight you with his wit and his plans.”

Now, we obviously don’t want to control people, but the ability to persuade people is vital in everyday life. Charm may seem like an intangible, indefinable quality but it really isn’t.

It is any way of communicating with someone where rapport is created, or where the receivers of your message are swayed and influenced.

Great leaders have this trait, they wield language like a surgical knife, using wit and story to remove any arguments you might have with clinical precision.

How can you improve your ability to persuade and charm people?

It begins with observing people. Psychopaths are great observers of human behavior, they can interpret aspects like body language, facial cues, changes in vocal tone, and adjust their tact accordingly.

Observing people is also about understanding different personality types and what motivates them. Blending these methods together will help no end, in touching people’s hearts and minds.


3. Emotionally Stable

Effective Leaders - Emotionally Stable

Being emotionally stable is a massive advantage in leadership roles.

If you can be calm when everyone around you is panicked, then it’s a sure fire sign of a leader. Dutton describes studies where brain scans were performed whilst showing the subject startling images.

The psychopath subjects exhibited decreased brain activity in the brain’s emotional centre, the amygdala, whereas brain scans of the normal subjects were spiking.

This is an explanation for why psychopaths, and executives, can show clear and precise thinking when confronted with tense situations. It can be a difficult thing to practice but it boils down to not immediately and emotionally reacting.

If you can take a deep breath when you sense your feelings getting the better of you, then you’re on the way to short-circuiting your unproductive reactions.


4. They Live in the Moment

Effective Leaders - Live in the Moment

Dutton states that psychopaths are exceptionally focused because they always live in the moment. It’s also this quality that allows them to be fearless. When you think about it, fear is just your mind running ahead of itself, anticipating what could happen.

If you’re completely focused on what is happening there and then, how can fear and anxiety arise?

Being mentally present also allows you absorb a great deal more about the current situation. Great leaders exhibit this where they are able to deal with high stress situations with ease, and not let it burden them.

Being able to live in the moment also means you’re less emotional, and you’re able to deal with problems effectively and efficiently. We can all practice this through the simple act of mindfulness.

By taking a moment to focus on your breath, or sensations in your body, it can help bring our worried and anxious minds back to the here and now. And by doing so, you’ll lead with less stress, be more focused and be able to fully appreciate the complexities of the moment.


5. High Self-Confidence

Effective Leaders - High Self-Confidence

Both Dutton and Hare agree that confidence is a key trait of psychopathic individuals. If you think about how a person with the traits already described, then they’d have no choice but be confident.

When your confidence wobbles, you’ll realize it’s because you haven’t put in 100%, or you believe other people’s opinions over yours, or maybe you’re just not sure of yourself.

If you analyse the exact moments when you haven’t been confident, you’ll notice that you weren’t focused on what you were trying to achieve. A confident leader has a mission, an objective.

It can be as simple as sending a message across to a colleague or presenting to a whole room of people. Whatever the situation is, they are committed on achieving their goal.

Psychopaths are drawn to maximizing each moment, seeking fulfillment and pleasure, wherever it can be found. They have no time to display doubt or low self-esteem. Working on your confidence can be difficult, but like everything else, you need to start somewhere.

If you can honestly say that there are things you do to the best of your ability, then you can build on that. If you have a lack of confidence in certain contexts, like speeches, then practice and familiarity builds confidence.

The best leaders have high self-esteem, and people look to these individuals for guidance. Start demonstrating similar levels of confidence and people will look to you for direction.



Psychopaths aren’t just the ones you hear about in the news, they exist in society, function normally and you may have even worked with one.

They exhibit a range of traits, some of which, when taken too far, can be harmful, and others, are actually what people associate with effective leaders. These are:

1. Reward and goal driven
2. Persuasive and Charming
3. Emotionally Stable
4. They live in the moment
5. High Self confidence

These are characteristics that you can learn and practice so you can improve your ability to lead people. Take these pointers and try them out today, you’ll surprise yourself at how empowering they are. Tell me how it goes by commenting below!


References Used

  • Babiak, P. and Hare, R.D. (2006). Snakes in Suits When Psychopaths Go To Work, HarperCollins, New York
  • Dutton, K. and McNab, A. (2014). The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, Transworld Publishers, Great Britain.
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