My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

Over the past fifteen years, a new crop of highly skilled researchers has entered the field of entrepreneurial research. They have in large part cleared away the tangled undergrowth of methodological questions: substantive definitions have been established and, increasingly, real entrepreneurs are used in sample populations. Despite the progress made in establishing a common language and base from which to compare and contrast information, most scholars in the field persist in focusing their research on what differentiates entrepreneurs from the rest of us very narrowly.

As Clemson University professor of entrepreneurship William Gartner noted: “Something gets lost when the focus of research on entrepreneurship sticks too closely to the ‘esoteric knowledge’ [of a] narrow disciplinary perspective. A finding can be right and interesting to a scholar within a specific theoretical perspective, but wrong or obvious to the practitioner and scholar with a broader and messier knowledge of the phenomenon.”

Gartner’s words struck a chord with me. And as I continued my own synthesis of existing research (with all of its elegance, and warts), I became even more deliberate about broadening the scope of my work.

What I needed was the scholarship and insight to make sense of my personal experiences as a consultant and what I knew to be anecdotally true about what makes entrepreneurs different from the rest of us. I began amassing an ever-higher pile of articles from academic journals, working papers, autobiographies, newspaper features, and magazine investigations to add to my transcripts of personal interviews with entrepreneurs, their kids, their wives, and, in many cases, their ex-wives. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting somewhere.

In early 2008 I was offered a coveted scholar-in-residence position at The Austen Riggs Center, which is ranked among the top psychiatric centers in North America. Riggs is a not-for-profit “open” hospital for patients who have not found success with the shorter-term biological and behavioral treatments characteristic of today’s approaches. Most of Riggs’ patients have been hospitalized multiple times in more traditional settings before finding their way to the center. Caught in a cycle of repeated crisis interventions that have failed to address the heart of their problems, they have been labeled “treatment resistant.” Importantly for my research, Riggs is the only psychiatric hospital in the United States that has a specialized focus on intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I didn’t have the background to examine my subjects from the perspective of a therapist, but at Austen Riggs, I would be surrounded by those who did.

The offer from Riggs was a singular opportunity to learn about psychopathology while also having the time and space to dig into two decades of legitimate research about entrepreneurial characteristics. I wanted to determine if there was an untold link lurking in the data. At Riggs, I’d be given full access to the staff, clinical privileges to read case workups, and an open invitation to attend all patient case conferences—a rare invitation for someone without clinical credentials. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand some of the most complex psychiatric disorders and to learn how their etiology is traced.

I took the position. And based within Riggs’ Erik Erikson Institute, I found myself surrounded by brilliant, caring, and inquisitive psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers who were willing to act as sounding boards and brainstorm ideas for additional avenues of inquiry.

My first week there, I asked the Institute’s director, Dr. Gerard Fromm, why he chose me over others to be the Erikson scholar-in-residence. I’ll never forget his response: “We’re fascinated by the questions you’re trying to answer, to gain insight to what drives the behaviors of those particular entrepreneurs that interest you. We have a good measure of self-interest in what you’re probing, Mark, because we believe some patients who come to us for help may be the children of the same kind of men you’re focusing on. The more you can answer your questions, and understand what’s behind their behavior, the better we may be able to understand the parental influence that perhaps helped to shape these patients and what they are now struggling with.”

That was the moment when I realized that the themes I had been identifying in my consulting work over the past twenty years—the dark side of entrepreneurship—could have more profound implications. I’d heard plenty of stories over the years about “crazy” CEOs, and I walked out of Jerry Fromm’s office thinking this project could give insight into the consequential impact these men were making not only on their investors and their employees, but also on their wives, families, and communities. This was the moment when my research truly began to take shape. I was well-versed in the damage mean men could do to their organizations, but my time at Austen Riggs begged the question: Did mean men just ruin companies, or did they also ruin lives?

This post was originally published on my blog on Sep 21, 2015.

Five Common Misconceptions About Psychopaths

As we explore the link between entrepreneurship and psychopathy, it’s crucial to examine some common misconceptions about what a psychopath is. This Halloween season, dozens of movies and television shows featuring crazed axe-wielding villains chasing screaming coeds will hit the airwaves. And those gory pictures may match up closely with what we think of as a psychopath. The research on psychopathy that I’ve delved into, however, offers a much more nuanced portrait of this complex disorder, one that debunks some common misconceptions about this most pernicious of personality disorders. But as we look more closely at what may be our own biases for who is and is not behaving in a way that indicates psychopathy, it’s also critical that we understand the ways in which our cultural narrative may steer us away from seeing those disordered individuals who hide in broad daylight, or in the corner office.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with violence.

Many of us most readily equate psychopaths with the famous serial killers whose unimaginable and outrageous acts captivated the public’s imagination: monsters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The media continues to use the terms psychopathic and killer almost interchangeably. But psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of any criminal behavior, and many individuals assessed as psychopathic have no history of violence. Psychopaths, more broadly, tend to engage in behaviors that may cause harm in a social or emotional sense (malicious gossiping, lying, manipulating others, or acting without regard for the feelings of others). As distasteful as these actions may be, none of them are violent or illegal.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with psychosis.

Owing perhaps in part to the similarity of the words psychopath and psychotic, another common assumption is that psychopaths are irrational, out of touch with reality, or both—these being characteristics of psychosis. Not helping matters is the news media using the term psychopath when featuring such famous killers as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and John Hinckley, who all showed indications of unmistakable psychotic thinking. More recently, the term psychopath was used by at least one political commentator in the context of Jared Lee Loughner, who shot and killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

While psychopathic traits can appear in conjunction with psychotic symptoms, they don’t necessarily do so. People with psychopathy alone generally look quite different from those presenting with psychosis only. Psychopathic individuals are generally rational, free of delusions, and well oriented to their surroundings. Psychotics act very differently from this.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Until the most recent version of the DSM was released, it was strongly implied that being psychopathic and being antisocial were interchangeable. Many may find their differences to be unremarkable, but once again, the crucial difference comes down to violence and criminality. Psychopathy is determined by characteristics of someone’s personality, whereas ASPD depends on the individual in question engaging in antisocial, criminal, and—to some extent—violent behaviors. This is not just scientific hairsplitting. As diagnostic methods have become more precise, seeing a history of criminal and violent behavior as an indicator of psychopathy has dropped precipitously.

Misconception: Psychopaths are born, not made.

Our understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture in shaping someone’s personality is ever evolving, with current thinking being that psychiatric conditions—including psychopathy—are not either born or bred but are a combination of the two. Based on what is now known, it seems very likely that psychopathy has many causal factors in addition to its genic component, and that one’s environment (particularly family setting and dynamics) could have a significant effect.

Misconception: Psychopathy is inalterable.

Despite the fact that this belief lacks convincing scientific basis, it is extraordinarily pervasive. So pervasive, in fact, that researchers have not even bothered to test the notion until recently. Initial empirical work now suggests that personality traits in general, and psychopathic traits specifically, do change as one moves through what are known as “developmental transitions.” Intentional, motivated change—with the help of highly skilled therapists—is showing some promise in limited clinical settings.

The difficulty in coming to terms with psychopathy—and psychopaths—has largely been due to overreliance on criminal behavior to define the disorder. Unquestioned assumptions have fostered the mistaken impression that psychopathic individuals invariably commit crimes. Leading researchers in the field have now made a significant pivot away from this belief. The behavior of psychopaths might be much subtler than we imagined but, in many ways, no less dangerous.

American Psychos: The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Last week, I talked about the line between “mean” and disordered. I used the example of “Noel,” who’d been a patient of a colleague of mine and who had, after a lifetime of abominable behavior, been diagnosed as a psychopath. I noted that in some ways Noel was particularly well suited for an entrepreneurial life. Why might a psychopath thrive in this arena? It’s helpful to look at personality traits on a spectrum, and to think of a person’s traits being monitored by a temperature gauge. For most people, most of the time, a collection of traits will hover somewhere in the middle, the “normal” range, and only periodically heat up and brush against the red zone. Let’s take our ten traits of the entrepreneur—drive, autonomy, need for control, etc.—and imagine these in the higher midrange for a long duration. This could identify our signature mix for the “entrepreneurial personality” while still indicating a relatively well-adjusted person.

But what if several of the traits within this defined set were always in the red zone? If an entrepreneur is unable to adapt to the extent to which these traits have effectively taken over his personality, then this may be the sign of a disordered personality, specifically of psychopathy. These men have crossed the border into the realm of lying, manipulating, if not downright cheating, and perhaps even engaging in criminal behavior (though they may never have been caught). They are completely unfettered by anxiety and totally unbound by conscience.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to make the definition of psychopathy so broad as to easily lump into it those who are merely objectionable; this is a matter of extreme personalities. The notion that psychopaths choose entrepreneurship as the stage for acting out their internal psychological drama adds a new and disturbing dimension to our understanding of the entrepreneurial phenomenon. The data indicates that this connection is anything but random.

Because those with disordered personalities fail to change, the pathological themes that tend to dominate their lives become vicious cycles. So blind are they to opportunities that may lead to improvement that repeated dysfunctional themes provoke new problems and create situations that remind them of their failures over and over again.

Discovering the relationship between the List of Ten—specifically, when a disproportionate number of the characteristics are in the red zone—and the personality disorder of psychopathy was, frankly, a shock to me. I had not expected to find a correlation with a disorder with such dark implications. Perhaps some garden-variety narcissism combined with one or two other traits? Sure. But this was a revelation. When I first made this connection, my own understanding of psychopathy—a complex disorder that has been more fully understood only in the last decade—was at the time superficial at best. But as I dug into the research on psychopathy and matched it with the characteristics and behaviors of the mean men I’d observed, I became convinced that this disorder was by far the best fit. Let’s explore it.

The Mask of Sanity

The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley was a top pioneer in understanding people who blended dangerously antisocial behaviors with a mask of normalcy. Cleckley worked at a psychiatric hospital in the late 1930s, a facility that often housed criminal offenders believed to be suffering from some form of mental illness.

These men seemed “normal” under most conditions. Cleckley watched as they charmed and then manipulated and took advantage of other patients, family members, and even hospital staff. As a result, he recognized that the psychopaths he worked with wore a cloak of normalcy to help them live in the world. He also came to believe that unlike the stereotypical criminal, these men generally came from “good homes” with loving parents and yet still ended up ruining lives without remorse, shame, or conscience.

Cleckley also found that these patients continually repeated dysfunctional or unfruitful behaviors; adaptiveness, as noted earlier, was elusive to them. They lacked insight about themselves and the impact their behaviors had on others. Because they were unmoved by the feelings of others, notions of remorse or shame were alien concepts. While they often appeared to be very honest—at least from the perspective of those with little experience interacting with them, particularly new staff members—they were frequently insincere.

Cleckley’s review of his patients’ records indicated they could be extremely egomaniacal and virtually unable to experience deep emotions, particularly love and compassion. They seemed unable to feel intensely any of the emotions that others experienced with the exception of a category known as proto-emotions, which includes very primitive emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage.

He personally experienced these patients as having superficial charm and reasonably good intelligence. They could tell creative, believable stories; they did not seem to show the delusional thinking that often characterizes psychiatric patients.

As he noted in his fifth edition of The Mask of Sanity, this patient “presents a technical appearance of sanity, often one of high intelligence capacities, and not infrequently succeeds in business or professional activities” [emphasis added]. The book’s title captured Cleckley’s belief that these men do not show obvious symptoms of mental illness.

Cleckley was quite taken by a profound underlying characteristic of the psychopathic disorder in which the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated, a condition known as semantic aphasia. Individual emotion-laden words or phrases are understood—“I adore you,” “I’m annoyed,” “I’m heartbroken”—but the psychopath cannot grasp the broader meaning of what he hears. This individual has a deep-seated inability to understand the emotional dimension of language, particularly those aspects associated with attachment and empathy. He can say the word “love,” for example, without an understanding of what it means, and certainly without any idea what it feels like.

Cleckley was startled by something else: nothing about the disorder suggested oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. The “mask” is one of robust mental health. But behind the mask he found pathological liars, adept at sizing up situations and feigning sincerity. Put the sum of these ingredients together, stir lightly, and you’d have a dangerous psychological profile that should sound awfully familiar to those reading this blog.

Messy Management Research: Why We See the Entrepreneur as a “Great Man”

The image of the high-flying, individualistic entrepreneur is so ingrained in our culture today that it’s hard to believe that this archetype was not always the ultimate American hero in the business world. To understand what’s led us to mythologize this breed of worker so, it’s important to look at where we get our ideas of what makes him who he is; interestingly, the debate over whether being an entrepreneur is a practical distinction or a deeply psychological one goes back a ways.

One of the grandfathers of my field of research was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950). Schumpeter made a clear case that entrepreneurs translated inventions into businesses, and these businesses generated wealth—a line of reasoning so central to our way of thinking now that it seems obvious. Schumpeter referred to the entrepreneur as the “Great Man,” and other scholars and observers quickly built upon that label, suggesting strongly that potential entrepreneurs might be identified and supported as a means for bolstering economic growth.

Schumpeter’s work found an admiring audience in Harvard psychology professor David McClelland. McClelland’s seminal 1961 book, The Achieving Society, showed how people could be trained to behave as those who had a natural psychological need for achievement did, could be taught, in other words, to be achievers.

McClelland’s findings sparked the beginning of an academic movement to cultivate entrepreneurs rather than simply identify them. In 1972 the US Small Business Administration began sponsoring academic programs built on McClelland’s ideas, which set the stage for the growth of entrepreneurship as a business discipline instead of a specialty in psychology. The race was on to uncover the unique formula for the perfect entrepreneur.

Most of this research—conducted from the 1970s until about 1990—was deeply contentious. The equivalent of an academic food fight broke out as researchers first took sides and then began criticizing one another’s work. One source of conflict was the burgeoning assortment of business school–based academic programs on entrepreneurship. Despite the fact that much of the field of management is based on the social sciences, psychologists felt unwelcome in a business-centered venue. Another source of conflict was that, in some important respects, the psychological view of entrepreneurship was muscled out as more practical (i.e., moneymaking) uses for the research emerged. Economists hypothesized over the outcomes of entrepreneurial endeavors, trying to determine the formula for success. Then the strategic planning advocates cut their way into line, arguing for their approach as a prognosticator of entrepreneurial success.

This conflict wasn’t necessarily bad news. Such friction is generally vital to protecting the integrity of any new area of research, ensuring that all of the tough questions and dubious conclusions are laid out on the table to be thoroughly vetted in order to establish a firm foundation for further research.

Unfortunately, no firm foundation was ever established. During this period, the percentage of psychologists based in business schools and studying entrepreneurship declined steadily. Harvard Business School became a center for psychoanalytic organizational theory, and much of this work was focused on the effort of getting inside the heads of entrepreneurs from a Freudian perspective, something that other psychologists avoided. By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the entrepreneur was a type of manager emotionally and psychologically different from salaried managers, and while maybe not a “Great Man,” he or she was clearly a different one.

But no single discipline seemed able to connect the dots.

By the 1990s, most psychologists studying entrepreneurs had been hammered by the strongly leveled critique of William Gartner, a professor of entrepreneurship at Clemson University.  Gartner bristled at what I call the “Garbage Can” approach to understanding the psychological profile of an entrepreneur. By this point in time, a startling number of traits—some of which I’ve discussed—began being attributed to the entrepreneur. To put them all together would be to create a person not only larger than life, but also full of contradictions.

As a result of these issues, multiple formal definitions of “entrepreneur” were being used by different researchers. This obviously creates huge problems. If you and others are measuring something, then everyone needs to be on board with precisely the same understanding of what that “something” is that’s being measured. Without consensus on what an entrepreneur was, the research became an exercise in comparing apples to oranges.

For example, the guy who owns and operates a service station, earning enough take-home pay to provide a comfortable life for his family, is called an entrepreneur. But so is the guy who identifies high-potential and high-risk unmet market needs, gets investors excited about building an organization to meet those needs, scales the organization quickly, and then sells it to go off and start another firm. Are these really two of a kind?

Meanwhile, there  was biting criticism of the data emerging from some ambitious research studies on entrepreneurs. Psychometric methodology—the design of the research projects and the processes by which they analyzed data—was being raked over the coals by other scholars. Researchers sprinkled around the United States who were delving into the personality of the entrepreneur were accusing one another of being less than rigorous in reaching conclusions through the highly complex—yet possibly inappropriate—statistical techniques they employed. They were also politely reprimanding each other in research journals for the lousy population samples of “entrepreneurs” being used.

One common example: A management professor would hypothesize that certain personality characteristics were associated with entrepreneurs, and he or she would test their theory by corralling a bunch of students in management courses. The students would be given a questionnaire and asked to check a box if they planned to start a business within the next five years, and—voilà!—the professor potentially had a few hundred “entrepreneurs” to glean data from. The next step was then to run a regression analysis to see if the suspected potential relationships among variables existed. Unfortunately, checking a box to indicate desire to be an entrepreneur and actually being one are quite different.

Entrepreneurs, as it turns out, are not as easy to identify as “people who want to start their own business”; so what, in fact, are they? We’ll dive deeper next week.

When Entrepreneurs Get It Right

The conversation inside the boardrooms and offices of companies that consistently make Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For has moved well past why abusive leaders shouldn’t be tolerated—they just aren’t.

Instead, smart and successful leaders focus on cultivating employee engagement, which results in greater loyalty, reduced absenteeism, increased reliability, and better job performance. This isn’t merely driven by a feel-good human relations philosophy; it’s data driven, and studies conducted over the past five years build a bulletproof case for this approach.

Researchers are finding that the new generation of top talent expects nothing less than to be valued. They expect to work for someone who not only invites their input and allows them to solve problems creatively and independently but who also is willing to share the spotlight and loosen up the confines of the traditional hierarchy.

At the core of this mindset is loosening the control held by those at the top. I’ve noted in past blogs how mean men need control, often an obsessive and counterproductive level of it. This flies directly in the face of what millennials are seeking from work.

Forty-one-year-old Guidewire CEO Marcus Ryu is an excellent example of this new breed of leader. He runs his organization in a way that ensures “the right answer wins,” no matter where it comes from in the company. A result of this guiding core principle, Ryu says, is that important decisions “are virtually always decided by consensus, by all the relevant key parties.”

Guidewire’s zero tolerance for what Ryu refers to as “two-facedness” means that a tyrant cannot sneak in using charm as a guise, or if one does, he faces “strong and instinctive pushback from his peers.” And guess what? The company has proven that mean men aren’t necessary to driving a successful business: Guidewire’s stock has more than doubled since going public in 2012.

Respect and trust are critical to a civil company culture. CEOs like Brian Halligan of HubSpot—which was named best midsized company to work for in Boston in 2010—talk the talk and walk the walk. To start with, they treat time differently. Employees are encouraged to work the hours they are most productive, and there is no vacation policy—meaning Halligan essentially is saying to his employees, “I trust you’ll know when you need time off, you’ll take it, and you’ll return refreshed and ready to give this company your all.” In other words, “I entrust you—the employee—with the control to determine what’s best for you and the company.”

Google, of course, is often at the top of Fortune’s famous list, coming in No. 1 for 2015. The tech giant also regularly tops Universum’s “Talent Attractive Index,” which surveys thousands of American college and graduate students about where they would like to work. The current CEO, Larry Page, has a ninety-five percent approval rating on Glassdoor, and over ninety percent of employees would recommend working at Google to a friend.

Mean men, with their overabundance of narcissism, are too infatuated with their own vision to ever cede the kind of independence stronger leaders encourage. Rather than a collective vision that others can rally around, it becomes one man’s manifesto. By placing profit over purpose, mean men often crush employees in a senseless grind. They end up not only losing talent; the reputation they develop repels it. Ultimately, the paradox becomes the actual compromise of profit because of employees’ diminishing motivation and ability to innovate.

On the other hand, I’ve found three key traits that distinguish well-liked and organizationally successful entrepreneurs from their tyrannous peers. “Civil” leaders are

  • One aspect of successful leadership requires embracing the reality that employees’ needs vary. One size does not fit all. One small but illustrative example: rather than offering an employee a generic gift card, for example, find out what the employee’s favorite shop is and buy them a gift card there. No sense giving a vegetarian a hundred dollars to spend at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Civil leaders scale this concept and find strategies large and small to find ways to accommodate their employees rather than simply saying, “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • They give accurate and timely feedback on specific accomplishments or initiatives, showing employees they are interested in their unique contributions, even if they were not ultimately successful. I’ve found in my client work that most organizations could stand to do a far better job at creating cultures where continual feedback is the norm, rather than the exception.
  • All-inclusive. They take time to recognize the role that behind-the-scenes people and teams play, knowing it helps instill in them a sense of ownership and pride in the business. Think about how David Letterman used to turn the camera on the cameraperson.

Great leaders treat their employees with civility, and they are also united with their peers. Though the leadership team may be spread out across the country, they try to spend time together outside the office. Whole Foods CEO and cofounder John Mackey found that this type of bond leads to a high degree of trust, better communication, and a willingness to work things out when problems and disagreements arise.

It makes sense that when the most senior members of an organization are civil, it trickles down. When a big challenge arises, they’ll be ready to analyze it from multiple perspectives—rather than go into “turf war mode,” while everybody on the sidelines watches and wonders, Are these people doing what we are supposed to aspire to?

As entrenched as mean-man culture can seem, these new CEOs are showing a better way forward. And that’s a fact.

Risky Business: The Cost of Hubris

Entrepreneurs aren’t hard to spot. They’re the ones out there on a limb, balancing on one toe and pirouetting while spinning a stack of china plates on a stick—fifty feet above a shark tank. Many successful companies wouldn’t exist if their founders hadn’t taken bold chances, but an appetite for risk is yet another entrepreneurial character trait that can backfire in a big way. The chance that a risk taker will bring a company he helped build up straight down is especially high in the case of mean men who think nobody can top them or stop them.

Don Hambrick and Arijit Chatterjee have spent years studying narcissistic CEOs. Their article “It’s All about Me: Narcissistic Chief Executive Officers and Their Effects on Company Performance” is based on research they conducted on 105 technology companies. They analyzed the following:

  • Annual report: How often was the CEO’s photo plastered in its pages?
  • Media strategy: How often did the CEO put himself front and center in the media, and how often did he use pronouns such as I and me in press interviews?
  • Paycheck and bonuses: What was the CEO’s compensation as compared to the next-highest-paid individual in the firm?

Taking into account the above factors, Hambrick and Chatterjee then compared these observed levels of CEO narcissism with the decisions those CEOs made and the performance of their companies.

Hambrick and Chatterjee found that rather than creating a strategy focused on generating long-term sustained growth and meeting the needs of various stakeholders, malignant narcissist CEOs tend to choose options with the greatest potential for garnering applause, favoring grandiosity over stability. Malignant narcissists make larger and more frequent acquisitions than their non-narcissistic counterparts do, and they prefer the big, attention-getting, often-risky deals.

These CEOs may be cocky and mean, but they are crying out, “Look at me! Love me! Revere me!” They want the attention, regardless of the risks.

Risky behavior can place companies in the crosshairs of government regulators, generate devastating press, or both. All it takes to destroy a brand these days is one tweet that goes viral: just look at poor Justine Sacco.

Because of their hubris, mean men are more likely to break laws and expose their firms to legal liabilities. Even companies and CEOs that seem untouchable get caught. In 2010 Apple found itself under public scrutiny as revelations surfaced that the company—under Steve Jobs’s leadership—had conspired with other Silicon Valley firms to forge an agreement not to poach one another’s employees. This move not only kept wages down but also was in violation of antitrust laws.

Herbert Hovenkamp, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, called Jobs “a walking antitrust violation.”

This was case in addition to Apple being found guilty of “facilitating and executing” a conspiracy to fix e-book prices for its own gain. Hovenkamp noted that Jobs’s behavior in both cases was “bold,” saying, “You see this kind of behavior sometimes in small, private, or family-run companies, but almost never in large public companies like Apple.”

Clearly, Jobs was a risk taker. Some of the risks he took resulted in the creation of the leading innovations of our time, but others, such as deciding to backdate stock options at Apple and Pixar in order to increase their value, resulted in jail time for executives at both companies. Jobs was never charged.

As is typical of mean men, Jobs didn’t think that rules meant for ordinary people applied to him. New York Times columnist James B. Stewart wrote: “Mr. Jobs’s conduct is a reminder that the difference between genius and potentially criminal behavior can be a fine line.” As Jobs once infamously said, “I’d rather be a pirate than join the navy.”

Research correlating risk taking with narcissism offers further insight into ousted American Apparel CEO Dov Charney. It’s hard enough to trust a CEO who, amongst many other reported vulgarities, once said, “I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product,” but it was Charney’s lies to the SEC and use of undocumented workers that produced the biggest liabilities for the company, which prided itself on its labor force.

The entrepreneurs and mean men out there on those tree limbs may be dashing risk takers, but they can also be self-confident to the point of being dangerous.

As I’ve observed time and time again, mean men exhibit a higher degree of need than most of us in many areas of their lives—it’s part of what drives them. Mean men take risks, in part to get attention, and in part because they believe they cannot fail. Some of the risks they take pay off well, but many have damaging results that ripple across the lives of employees, stockholders, friends, and loved ones.

The Charisma Factor

In exploring the behavior of the entrepreneurs I’ve studied, one persistent question emerges: Why do people put up with them? Even in the case of Dov Charney, his bad reputation eventually brought him down, but it took decades to do so. How is that possible? In many cases, as much as employees and board members may abhor men like Arnell and Charney, they are mesmerized by them in equal measure. Why? Charisma.

While conducting research for my book, Guiding Growth, I discovered something that intrigued me. I found that when leaders could conceptualize and communicate a strong, inspiring vision, it compelled those listening to them to identify strongly with not only the vision but also the leader who was putting it into words—regardless of whether or not his ideas were original or even his own. It also didn’t matter if the “leader” in this case was actually running the company; the attraction had little to do with organizational rank. This ability to skillfully communicate a vision has been found to be one of the defining characteristics of charisma.

Of course, these compelling visions are sometimes little more than rhetorical showmanship, and they may not actually reflect any real commitment on the speaker’s part to the matter at hand: Chris Christie is a prime example of this. No matter. If the listener is enraptured by the content and enthralled by the presentation, it can be difficult to see through the smoke and mirrors.

Charismatic leaders tend to have an extraordinary facility with language, making effective use of allegory, analogy, metaphor, and symbols to make their point. Nonverbally, there is often particular mindfulness paid to physical appearance, eye contact, voice modulation, and body language: an uncanny ability to read personal and social cues.

Steve Jobs personified the charismatic leader—someone who inspired those around him even though working with him could be unbearable. Jobs was particularly famous for his penetrating, unblinking stare. He would gaze into a person’s eyes, ask them questions, and hold the stare while waiting for an answer. This stare was not an unconscious tendency: Jobs had trained himself to be able to stare without blinking for long periods. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs saw his intensity as an instrument of persuasion: “He taught himself to stare without blinking so he could talk people into things.” An early Apple employee would later say that Jobs “reminded me of Rasputin. He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it.”

The modus operandi of leaders like Jobs runs counter to our current cultural ideal of those who lead with great empathy and humility. But many of the men heading up companies continue to rely on in-your-face intimidation tactics to lead.

Looking beneath the tough exteriors of these larger-than-life leaders, however, can provide a more subtle insight into human motivation and organizational behavior. Psychologist Howard Gardner suggested the term social intelligence to explain how some leaders become so adept at getting others to follow them and, in the process, inspiring a high level of performance from their followers. Gardner defined social intelligence in terms of a leader’s interpersonal skills, such as empathy and the ability to influence others on the basis of that understanding.

Another thing Jobs was famous for was the visionary way he talked about computing and, later, music and phones. He was energetic and could dazzle listeners with his vision of the future, pushing them to think beyond what seemed possible. Investors wanted to give him money, and engineers and designers wanted to work with him, and he became an object of near cultlike admiration.

The reality of working with Steve Jobs was not so rosy: he was infamous for his tantrums, his put-downs, and his unreasonable requests. Jony Ive, Jobs’s longtime lieutenant at Apple, would say, “The normal rules of social engagement do not apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone.”

This highlights a key difference between socially intelligent and politically intelligent leaders. Both are adept at sizing other people up, and both have a keen, discriminating eye for human behavior. But while socially intelligent leaders assess people’s strengths and figure out how to make the most of them, politically intelligent leaders focus on people’s weaknesses and exploit them. Bill Moyers, onetime press secretary of world-class intimidator Lyndon Johnson, commented that Johnson had “an animal sense of weakness in other men.” A political scientist once remarked that Johnson studied, analyzed, cataloged, and remembered the strengths and weaknesses and the likes and dislikes of other politicians the way others collect data on stock picks or batting averages.

Socially intelligent leaders pull the levers of empathy and use “soft power” to build bridges and get things done, while mean men like Jobs bully and intimidate to bend people to their will, exploiting the anxieties and vulnerabilities of underlings to gain an upper hand.

We often use the term charismatic as a compliment, but like so many of the entrepreneurial traits I’ve researched, in the wrong hands, charisma can be a treacherous weapon.

Free-Agent Nation

There have always been narcissists out there, but they weren’t always able to run amok quite as they do now. Decades ago, the road to success mostly went through large organizations. In our current culture, however, individualism reigns. From CEOs to athletes to actors, we live in a world where the self-made man is king, for better or worse. For the would-be titans of yesteryear, succeeding in business typically meant climbing to the top of a big corporation and learning to work with—and be subordinate to—others along the way. When William H. Whyte wrote his 1956 bestseller The Organization Man, many of the characteristics of an entrepreneur could be a serious liability for an ambitious young businessman. In the postwar era, the vast majority of career opportunities were with large companies where you were expected to take orders from others, follow procedures, and keep your impulsivity in check. In those days, success meant finding a place to call home, rising within its ranks, and retiring with a gold watch decades later. Big business didn’t only run the corporate world; it ran other spheres as well. Top athletes were essentially owned by their sports teams, musicians and actors were essentially owned by their studios, politicians were beholden to party bosses, and nearly all reporters were on the payroll of media corporations.

In today’s “free-agent” culture, however, far more people are in charge of their own careers and destinies. Sports stars jump from team to team, directors and actors have their own production companies, politicians have their own unaffiliated PACs, and musicians become famous on YouTube rather than via a studio. And in business, a bright twenty-five-year-old with a good idea can raise millions of dollars, completely skipping over the dues-paying and hoop-jumping of corporate culture.

The transformation of the business sector has been especially profound, with the explosion of entrepreneurship over the past few decades reflecting a number of changes in the economy.

The shift away from manufacturing to an information and services economy has greatly lowered the cost of doing business and dramatically shortened the time frame for growth. Creating goods once required building factories filled with machinery, employing lots of workers, and sourcing a steady supply of raw materials. Now high-value goods can be created by smaller groups of technologists or by those sitting in front of computers, such as programmers and designers. And when actual physical goods do have to be produced—e.g., consumer electronics—the process is cheaper and far more flexible. There’s no need to build your own factory when you can outsource production to someone else, particularly if you can find someone in a country with rock-bottom labor costs.

A second shift is the availability of capital. A single individual with a good idea can now mobilize tens of millions in venture capital money to pursue that vision. For those willing to take risks and think big, the barriers to entry are lower than ever. And they continue to lower as innovation rushes forward. The Internet companies started in the 1990s were much cheaper to scale up than were the software companies created by people like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in the 1980s. In turn, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Zynga that rose during the most recent tech boom were even cheaper to get up and running because of developments like cloud computing.

And so what of the company man of the 1950s and ’60s? The employee who is a steadfast team player, committed to the glory of the organization rather than his own? There is the sense now that this is the path of the boring and unimaginative. If you’re so great, we ask, why are you working for someone else?

Of course, many people were unhappy with the rigidity of midcentury corporate culture, not to mention how unwelcoming it was to women, gay people, and minorities. There are more opportunities outside of big institutions than ever before, and that’s good news for many of us. But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater in the pursuit of freedom? Do we now put the self-made man on such a pedestal that we forgive all his shortcomings, however destructive?

The Ten Characteristics of an Entrepreneur

From the outside, entrepreneurs may seem like a diverse group: from the triumphant nerd whose love of code makes him a billionaire to the gruff guy from the wrong side of town who rises to command a vast empire. But my two decades of research on the entrepreneurial personality suggest that those drawn to the role share a common set of characteristics. While these traits aren’t negative in and of themselves, any one of them in excess (particularly if combined with a paucity of empathy) can spell disaster.

1. Need for Achievement

You don’t climb from an impoverished Brooklyn childhood to the pinnacle of the advertising world as Peter Arnell did unless you simply must succeed. A deep need for achievement is the stalwart anchor of entrepreneurism. Arnell has it in spades, as do most of the other men I’ve studied. Entrepreneurs are known for making things happen—for creating something out of nothing—and it all begins with a burning need to be the best.

2. Drive

Feeling a need for outsize achievement is one thing; actually making it happen is quite another. What separates entrepreneurs from dreamers is their drive. Drive is a powerful combination of proactivity, ambition, and energy. Any person trying to propel themselves to the heights of their field needs to have a high level of raw endurance in order to be able to work long hours and stay focused under duress. Bringing organizations from idea to working reality takes enormous amounts of effort. The high energy and stamina that comes with true drive is essential to managing these demands.

3. Autonomy

Many entrepreneurs strike out on their own because they can’t stand working for others. Those craving autonomy are drawn to pursuits where they can work around established conventions and do things their own way with little or no oversight from others.

Nobody succeeds entirely on their own, of course, but while the history of technology start-ups looks like a parade of partnerships—Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook)—none of them stood the test of time. For many entrepreneurs, the need to fly solo is just too strong.

4. Need for Control

Along with the drive and vision inherent in entrepreneurs comes a need for control: the power to direct others and to organize a team toward a larger goal. While having a powerful leader in charge can drive a company forward and keep employees motivated, the dark side is equally potent. Pejorative terms like “control freak” and “micromanager” are part of our lexicon for a reason, and nobody likes to work for, or with, these kinds of people.

5. Internal Locus of Control

Believing deeply in one’s destiny and future is crucial for entrepreneurs, and they must also believe that they are the ones who can make it happen. This internal sense that one can control one’s destiny and bring others along with them sustains many entrepreneurs through the long and difficult road to success. Those with an external locus of control—that is, those who believe they are at the mercy of fate—are much more likely to believe that, say, the economy or their coworkers are responsible for the successes or failures of the organization.

6. Impulsivity

The Lone Ranger wasn’t known for his methodical planning; he acted on impulse, spurring his horse, Silver, to the next crisis to bring justice to the frontier. Impulsivity can serve us well of course; in a fast-moving, competitive world, the ability to draw first and fastest can give one a decisive edge. But impulsivity can also be dangerous. The absence of careful planning and an inability to delegate can introduce a serious threat to a business. As can a penchant for relying on “hunches” for guidance.

7. Extreme Self-Reliance (or Watchfulness)

Entrepreneurs trust their vision above all things, and this can lead to suspicion of others. Constant monitoring for threats can serve entrepreneurs by helping them keep an eye on competitor moves, supplier manipulation, and various changes in customer preferences. But this watchfulness can extend to their own sphere, making them suspicious of their employees and even the world around them, putting them constantly at the ready for disaster to strike.

8. Predisposition to Take Risks

The eighteenth-century Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon, who coined the term entrepreneur, defined it as a “bearer of risk.” Risk taking was one of the first characteristics ever investigated in relation to entrepreneurs, and it’s thought to be the primary differentiator between entrepreneurs and non-business-owning managers. Those who strike out on their own and aim high tend to have a strong appetite for risk. Some successful entrepreneurs get as far as they do because of their willingness to put everything on the line. Yet this same trait can lead to their undoing in cases where what’s at stake far outweighs the potential benefits of a risky decision.

9. Self-Confidence

A key trait of entrepreneurs is their belief that they can meet life’s challenges, overcome obstacles, and achieve the goals they set for themselves. It’s easy to see why an entrepreneur would need confidence, and substantial research indicates that this is a key predictor of who will or will not start a company. However, the line between self-confidence and arrogance is famously thin, and too much belief in oneself can lead one to dismiss the views of others.

10. Need for Approval

Entrepreneurs often reveal a great need for admiration and applause, an overriding concern to be heard and recognized. This can inspire grand charisma, giving someone the power to persuade others of an imagined future. Oftentimes, though, it may be a reaction against feeling insignificant, like being nothing, and if it goes unchecked it can easily become malignant.

The Golden Boys of Mean

We live in a country obsessed with entrepreneurs. From tech juggernauts like Steve Jobs, to outrageous, misbehaving CEOs like Dov Charney, to social media golden boys like Mark Zuckerberg, we can’t get enough of them. There’s nothing more quintessentially American than someone who finds success by flouting convention and forging their own path.

The fascination with these self-made, charismatic iconoclasts is one I share. In fact, I’ve made a study of entrepreneurs over the last several decades. In the 1990s, my position as a professor of management at The New School, a New York–based university with a reputation for being innovative, gave me a rare inner look into the then booming start-up world. Focusing on CEO leadership development, I helped entrepreneurial companies build high-functioning executive teams, develop strategies for growth and manage the big changes within their organizations. It was exciting work, and all the while I was drawing on my consulting experience to advance the scholarship on the nature of leadership and entrepreneurship.

When Walter Isaacson published his biography of Steve Jobs in 2011, the media was abuzz about the book’s most prominent takeaway: Jobs had been a titanic jerk. Isaacson’s book is filled with outrageous tales of Job’s tantrums, stony coldness, double-crosses, and controlling behavior. I, however, wasn’t surprised by any of it. In fact, I knew that some of the worst stories about Jobs didn’t even make it into Isaacson’s book. More broadly, I wasn’t shocked that a top entrepreneur could behave so badly because I’d quietly been collecting my own stories about guys like Jobs for years. His story was but the tip of a toxic iceberg when it came to twisted people in high places. By the time the Isaacson book came out, I was already in deep, having spent three years exploring the question of what makes these mean men tick.

You see, as I worked in the start-up world I spoke with scores of those who worked for and lived with entrepreneurs—their advisors, investors, spouses, and children—and chillingly similar themes began to emerge. In an alarming number of cases, I heard about an obsessive need for control among many of these self-made men, a need that made them unable to delegate and, much worse, made them micromanage everyone in their world. Deviate from their directives and they’d explode in anger. I heard about their distrust and paranoia even as they entered into high-stakes-partnerships or gave lip service to empowering others and their desire to build strong teams. There were tales of out-of-control arrogance and dismissive, condescending behavior from entrepreneurs who believed so deeply in their own worldview and talents that they viewed others not as people, but as mere tools to achieve their ends. I heard about impulsive decisions and extreme risk-taking, often with disastrous results, as young entrepreneurs convinced of their own infallible genius followed their “gut” and refused to listen to advice or counter arguments.

Our society lauds the entrepreneur, but it quickly became clear to me that many of the all-American, trailblazing heroes we hold so dear have developed a serious dark side. So what’s going on here? Why do so many of these charismatic leaders who seem to have it together regularly turn on those closest to them? What drives these behaviors? What makes them so mean?

I’ve seen the enormous damage mean entrepreneurs can inflict on both people and organizations with behavior both appalling and wrong. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Contrary to popular wisdom, mean doesn’t “get results” or “work.” In fact, a growing body of compelling academic research shows just the opposite: leaders who support and empower people, who act with civility, and who inspire trust, get the best results over the long term.

My purpose in studying entrepreneurs isn’t to denigrate them, but to question why the bad ones often remain unchecked for so long and to examine why we allow some of our most treasured moguls to treat others so badly. The fact is, a discomforting number of America’s most visible entrepreneurs share characteristics of a dark personality disorder that compels them to behave badly, even as it drives them to create and excel.

So how did we get to this place where we laud men who behave so abominably? When is enough enough, and how do we combat the general culture of mean?