The rise of the corporate pyschopath

In Blog by Ian Fraser0 Comments

28 December 2011

It would have been even better that Brian Basham had been able to name the investment bank that used to use psychometric testing to ensure recruits to its corporate finance arm were ‘social psychopaths’. But Basham’s piece, published in today’s The Independent is very good.

Over the years I’ve met my fair share of monsters – rogue individuals, for the most part. But as regulation in the UK and the US has loosened its restraints, the monsters have proliferated.

… In Jon Ronson’s widely acclaimed book The Psychopath Test, Professor Robert Hare told the author: “I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well. Serial killer psychopaths ruin families. Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

Cut to a pleasantly warm evening in Bahrain. My companion, a senior UK investment banker and I, are discussing the most successful banking types we know and what makes them tick. I argue that they often conform to the characteristics displayed by social psychopaths. To my surprise, my friend agrees.

He then makes an astonishing confession: “At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles.”

Here was one of the biggest investment banks in the world seeking psychopaths as recruits.

Mr Ronson spoke to scores of psychologists about their understanding of the damage that psychopaths could do to society. None of those psychologists could have imagined, I’m sure, the existence of a bank that used the science of spotting them as a recruiting mechanism.

I’ve never met Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers and the architect of its downfall, but I’ve seen him on video and it’s terrifying. He snarled to Lehman staff that he wanted to “rip out their [his competitors] hearts and eat them before they died” (see video clip above). So how did someone like Mr Fuld get to the top of Lehman? You don’t need to see the video to conclude he was weird; you could take a little more time and read a 2,200-page report by Anton Valukas, the Chicago-based lawyer hired by a US court to investigate Lehman’s failure. Mr Valukas revealed systemic chicanery within the bank; he described management failures and a destructive, internal culture of reckless risk-taking worthy of any psychopath.

So why wasn’t Mr Fuld spotted and stopped? I’ve concluded it’s the good old question of nature and nurture but with a new interpretation. As I see it, in its search for never-ending growth, the financial services sector has actively sought out monsters with natures like Mr Fuld and nurtured them with bonuses and praise.

We all understand that sometimes businesses have to be cut back to ensure their survival, and where those cuts should fall is as relevant to a company as it is, today, to the UK economy; should it bear down upon the rich or the poor?

Making those cuts doesn’t make psychopaths of the cutters, but the financial sector’s lack of remorse for the pain it encourages people to inflict is purely psychopathic. Surely the action of cutting should be a matter for sorrow and regret? People’s lives are damaged, even destroyed. However, that’s not how the financial sector sees it …

Mr Ronson reports: “Justice departments and parole boards all over the world have accepted Hare’s contention that psychopaths are quite simply incurable and everyone should concentrate their energies instead on learning how to root them out.”

But, far from being rooted out, they are still in place and often in positions of even greater power.

As Mr Boddy warns: “The very same corporate psychopaths, who probably caused the crisis by their self-seeking greed and avarice, are now advising governments on how to get out of the crisis. Further, if the corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis is correct, then we are now far from the end of the crisis. Indeed, it is only the end of the beginning.”

… In attempting to understand the complexities of what went wrong in the years leading to 2008, I’ve developed a rule: “In an unregulated world, the least-principled people rise to the top.” And there are none who are less principled than corporate psychopaths.

Brian Basham is a veteran City PR man, entrepreneur and journalist. Read the full piece on Independent.co.uk.

If you’re interested in this topic, I would recommend watching I am fishead, produced and directed by Misha Votruba and Vaclav Dejcmar. The film, narrated by Peter Coyote, explores the theme of psychopathy, and the baleful influence of psychopaths and psychopath worship on our society, in much greater detail (and includes an extensive interview with Professor Robert Hare). 

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