Are All Startup Founders Psychopaths?

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Surely, they have given thought to this. And they decided it was worth running the risk and investing in people who might be sociopathic.

There’s no reason to believe that a “successful” psychopath won’t be able to build an awesome company. It takes all kinds, and there are plenty of “normal” people who run startups that don’t go anywhere either.

I’m not saying that any of this is right. But I am saying that in the world of startups, investors see a certain amount of risk as normal, and they are willing to accept and even encourage sociopathy in their founders. And that goes a long way toward explaining how someone like Travis Kalanick was able to build Uber.

The fact is, there are plenty of people who will do what it takes to get ahead. And investors are not ones to judge. In the end, it’s the market that will decide if you are fit for success. In the case of Uber, the market has spoken. For better or worse, we’re living in a world that is largely run by psychopaths, and that’s not going to change any time soon. So get used to it.

What is a Psychopath?

Psychopathy is a personality disorder with certain consistent characteristics, and it is usually diagnosed in adulthood. People who are psychopathic are highly manipulative, have no remorse or empathy for the pain they cause other people, and they are impulsive, callous and sometimes reckless. They can be superficially charming but tend to have an inflated sense of self-worth.

The good news is that psychopathy is relatively rare in the general population — studies suggest that about 1 percent of people may meet criteria for full-on psychopathy. The bad news is that in some settings (for example the business world) psychopathy can be highly adaptive, conferring success to the extent that it does not prevent one from acquiring friends or allies.

Psychopaths do not necessarily have an easy time getting into positions of power — but once they get there, they know exactly how to use their influence for personal gain. They may do unspeakable things if they think it will help them achieve their goals — cheating on their spouses or running roughshod over co-workers being two common examples. But in some contexts, such as business or politics, anti-social behaviour might be considered “ruthless” or “ambitious” rather than psychopathic.

One of the most consistent findings in the field is that sociopaths are overrepresented at the top levels of business. In fact, when it comes to running companies, Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg found that

The psychopathy checklist includes items such as:

“Considerable lying” (e.g., deceiving and manipulating others for personal gain)

Being “impulsive” (e.g., failing to plan ahead or follow instructions)

Showing “callousness” towards other people (e.g., treating others badly, even if that means taking advantage of them), and being unempathetic (not caring about the emotional state of others).

Having a sense of grandiosity (i.e., boasting about one’s accomplishments or feeling entitled to certain privileges). Psychopaths feel that they are better than other people and more deserving of certain things.

Lying: It takes one to know one…

Most people have been lied to at least once or twice in their lives. But the psychopathic liar is different. They casually, to suit their purposes and without much concern for getting caught. They lie not only to you, but about you — and he might even lie to themselves about what they’re done. Their self-image is so grandiose that they believe whatever they says is true, no matter how unlikely it may be. If caught in a lie, the psychopath will simply change their story and move on — without much concern for who they hurt along the way or how badly their credibility has been damaged.

Unempathetic.

Psychopaths don’t really feel bad about the pain and suffering they cause others. For them, it isn’t personal; it’s just how business gets done. In fact, they may even come to enjoy causing others harm — whether physically or emotionally — because of the rush of power that comes with being in control.

Take Uber, for example: The company has earned a reputation for having “unfair business practices” and “mistreating drivers.”

But according to some sources, that is exactly what makes Uber such a great company to work for (or with). To quote one founder who invested in Uber: “It is unfair advantage to be able to say that you own your own time and can do whatever you want while generating revenue at the same time. It is like one of those things where if you had a friend who was an NFL player, there would be something cool about that … I have a lot of friends who are lawyers or bankers or consultants or whatever, but none of them have ever said anything like that to me before… I don’t think anyone else has approached it this way before… It reminds me more of tech than anything else.”

The Uber founder is right. It’s not like anything else. And it’s not like anything that most companies would consider fair. But as long as the “unfair advantage” is good for business, Uber founder and former CEO doesn’t care whether it hurts other people or not. And he won’t think twice about hiring a psychopath who might be able to help him find ways to keep his competitive advantage — even if that means exploiting customers or employees in the process.

Is Donald Trump a Psychopath?

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Hirstein, a neuroscientist and philosopher at Northwestern University, has pointed out the similarities between Donald Trump and a psychopath. For example:

Trump’s inability to stick with one version of events for more than two minutes before contradicting himself (A psychopath can tell lies without batting an eye — even if they are caught out in their lies over and over again).

Trump’s tendency to blame others for his own mistakes (Psychopaths often have an external locus of control — they believe that external forces determine their fate).

Trump’s grandiose sense of self-worth (A psychopath thinks he is better than everyone else — even when there is no evidence to support it).

There are other clues as well: Trump drives people away with his bullying tactics… He can be violent and impulsive… He is a pathological liar… He shows no remorse for the damage he causes others… And of course, he loves playing the victim in order to manipulate people into doing things for him. These are all common traits among psychopaths. So while there aren’t any formal studies on Trump’s behavior, it seems that the majority of people agree with Hirstein’s assessment.

On the other hand, there are some who disagree.

For example: “That’s just what psychologists do when they don’t have a clinical diagnosis for someone — they go out and invent one,” said John D. Gartner, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. “He doesn’t meet the criteria for any personality disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), so you can only diagnose him with something else if you stretch things. And that is what has been done here — beyond all recognition. It is ridiculous to say this man has no personality or character defect whatsoever… Just because he is not diagnosable with a formal disorder does not mean he is mentally healthy… It simply means we don’t have a good way to classify him using our current system of classification… There are some things wrong with this guy; we just don’t know how to classify them yet.”

About the Author

I am the Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and angel investor in other Startups of my other interests (Proptech, Fintech, HRtech, Ride-hailing, C2C marketplaces and SaaS). You can also find me on Cudy for early-stage Startup Founder mentorship and advice.

You can connect with me on Linkedin (https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexanderlhk) and let me know that you are a reader of my Medium posts in your invitation message.

Founder of Cudy Technologies (www.cudy.co), a full-stack EdTech startup helping teachers and students teach and learn better. I am also a mentor and investor.