Check out Alan Deutschman's cover story in this month's issue of Fast Company: "Is Your Boss a Psychopath?" And if you have another moment, peruse the gallery of Bosses from Hell. My favorite is Henry Clay Frick: "On July 6, 1892, Frick's private militia of 300 Pinkertons fired on a crowd of striking steelworkers and their families. Then he had them evicted from company-owned houses, blacklisted, and tried for murder."
A few years ago I worked for a caustic nutjob at an ad agency in downtown D.C. Let's call him BB. He loathed shyness and told me in my first salary review, "People here don't like you because you don't talk enough." It wasn't true; Once I stopped weeping my colleagues cleaned me up and took me out to lunch, sweetly pointing out that BB never heard me speak because he was always screaming at someone. Also he was deaf in one ear.
He once commissioned me to write an article for a leading trade publication, then published it under his own name. The next spring he fired me and two of my colleagues. Those colleagues' wives, coincidentally, had both given birth two weeks earlier. While I searched for another job interviewers at other ad agencies would look at my resume and gasp, "You spent two years at that firm? I never met a writer who lasted more than six months there!" Maybe BB had liked me more than he let on; maybe I was just a glutton for punishment; either way I was glad to be gone from that awful place.
My new office is around the corner from the old one and occasionally I run into BB at my favorite lunch spot. It's all I can do to keep from spitting on his sushi and punching him right in his recessed chin.
But I digress.
Deutschman says that one's relative level and/or type of sociopathy is what determines his path. But what if it's a simple matter of means and opportunity? A psycho with access to money and education learns early on to indulge his greed by using people, and he becomes a business success. A psycho raised in poverty might learn by example that violence and theft are the way to go, and he becomes a killer. Not that it matters: At the end of the day both will ruin some lives and probably wind up in prison.
For what it's worth, someone has developed a diagnostic tool -- a sort of litmus test for evil that will help prospective employers weed out soulless opportunists and either show them the door or give them a corner office with a view, depending on the position to be filled. Fools. Don't they know those suits eat their own kind? Give me a low-paying bleeding-heart non-profit job anyday. I love my boss and I go to sleep with a clean professional conscience every night. That's not to say we don't have psychos here; it's just a kinder, gentler brand of crazy.