Sociopathic Leaders




“The only crime is pride.”

Do you know a sociopath? If your answer is “no,” this is mistaken. ‘Antisocial Personality Disorder’ (APD) afflicts 2% of the population.

Some believe anyone demanding or stubborn is a sociopath. This may expresses legitimate anger. But demeaning others with this label robs them of their humanity–and robs us of the ability to interact well with difficult people.

Antisocial behaviors are dysfunctional. Moreover, leaders exhibiting the ”central features of Antisocial Personality Disorder”–deceitfulness and manipulation–have a devastating impact upon our society.

APD is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.” Though only a psychiatrist can diagnose this disorder, the seven criteria for a clinical diagnosis are antisocial behaviors:

“Failure to conform to social norms” and law by “repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest”;
“Deceitfulness (through lying, aliases or conning) for personal profit or pleasure”;
“Impulsivity or failure to plan ahead”;
“Irritability and aggressiveness (with) repeated physical fights and assaults”;
“Reckless disregard for safety of self or others”;
“Consistent irresponsibility” (at work or with financial obligations);
“Lack of remorse” through indifference or rationalization for causing harm to another.

In addition to being stigmatizing, the terms ‘sociopath’ and its predecessor, ‘psychopath,’ are misleading and some may falsely infer psychotic behavior. While some persons suffering from APD are highly dysfunctional, others are attracted to and obtain positions with significant power.

In my clinical training as a mental health chaplain and counselor, the wisdom of mentors and my experiences with people suffering from mental illnesses–whether mild or severe–confirm a central finding: People with dysfunctional psychiatric ideations stand in contrast to the norms of their own culture. Their cognitive, emotional and social functioning may be healthy or unhealthy. Likewise, religious beliefs are not equally valid: they too may be healthy or unhealthy.

The above criteria enable us to identify the destructive antisocial attitudes and actions we must all guard against, especially regarding our society’s powerful political and corporate leaders. What might we conclude, for example, regarding Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s dismissal of the views of tens of thousands of public sector protestors whose established rights as workers are threatened? Is this functional or dysfunctional? Healthy or unhealthy?

We must consider a number of factors. After three weeks of passionate protests, Walker appears unmoved. As the media has documented, his statements are often deceptive or demonstrably false. Cognitively, his ability to compromise appears impaired. Emotionally, his demeanor suggests he has little or no empathy. Even statements by some of Walker’s Republican colleagues suggest his leadership is dysfunctional.

Significantly, Walker’s ethical framework is black-and-white: I am right; those differing are wrong. Moral judgments based on this assumption reflect self-righteousness when estimating one’s own values and worth, and arrogance toward those dismissed. In his religious testimony, Walker states the evangelical hymn, Trust and Obey, expresses the core of his faith. Yet these familiar lyrics do not mandate, as Walker states, that we are specifically directed by God.

Two millennia of church history warn against ‘spiritual Lone Rangers.’ Also, by definition, faith is not absolute knowledge. We may come to believe or trust what we perceive as God’s will. As the Apostle Paul teaches, however, in “the body of Christ,” a metaphor for the Christian community, each ‘member’ is dependent upon each other. A Lone Ranger who knows the truth is not the norm for evangelical culture.

Again, our task is not diagnosis. From a layman’s standpoint, however, the seven criteria for antisocial behaviors are excellent benchmarks for assessing leaders and ourselves for dysfunctional tendencies. Consider the following possible assessment of Walker’s attitudes and actions:

Deceitfulness and lies as evidenced by many public remarks;
Reckless disregard for the safety of others when discussing with staff the possibility of planting provocateurs among protestors;
Lack of remorse and indifference for the effects his policies have on workers; and
Disregard for social norms and law, including defying a court order.

We need leaders who function well. Without partisanship, we must recognize leaders with a spectrum of repeated dysfunctional behaviors such as deception, aggression, impulsivity, reckless disregard or lack of empathy for others.

Do we want leaders who are basically honest and caring, well functioning and responsible? If so, we must assess these qualities in our candidates. Political leaders must safeguard our rights as citizens. Regardless of political affiliation, we must hold accountable and remove from leadership those who exhibit “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.”

©2011 Harry Rix.  All rights reserved.

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