Is your boss a psychopath?

Many years ago I worked for a man who forced a pair of employees who had just ended their relationship to move to adjacent workstations. He did it purely for his amusement. Doubtless everyone has a story of this ilk. But scientific evidence that leaders really are different in their personal pathology from the rest of us has been lacking - until now. Case studies by psychologists have claimed that "successful psychopaths" really exist. These are portrayed as emotionally detached, with superficial charm and an unbounded preparedness to use others, differing only from personality-disordered criminal psychopaths in being law-abiding and less impulsive. Because such reports are ultimately anecdotal, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon of Surrey University decided to test whether there was any overlap between the personalities of business managers, psychiatric patients and hospitalised criminals (psychopathic and psychiatrically ill). Their results, published last month, make startling reading.

Board and Fritzon found that three of 11 personality disorders (PDs) were actually commoner in managers than in disturbed criminals. The first was histrionic PD, entailing superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulativeness. There was also a higher incidence of narcissism: grandiosity, self-focused lack of empathy for others, exploitativeness and independence. Finally, there was more compulsive PD in the managers, including perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies.

So far, so David Brent, and it's easy to see how these characteristics might contribute to office skills. But unlike Brent, these bosses were less likely to have several career-stopping PD traits. They were less prone to physical aggression, irresponsibility and law-breaking (antisocial PD); they had less impulsivity, suicidal gestures and emotional instability (borderlines); and they were less prone to hostility followed by contrition (passive-aggressives). David Brent's possession of several of these traits explain his managerial failure (and if The Office had continued, are why he would have ended up in psychiatric care).

Other studies have revealed, rather surprisingly, that mental ability does not in itself result in success. It has to be combined with exceptional social skills and of these, chameleonism and machiavellianism - common in many PDs - are important. Since such people earn more and go higher than ones without these traits, it supports the idea that many leaders have PDs. But perhaps the most persuasive indirect evidence concerns leaders' deeper motivations.

In almost all the fields where a study has been done, a third of the highest achievers lost a parent before the age of 14 (compared with 8% in the general population). This is true in surveys of prime ministers, US presidents and entrepreneurs. Left high and dry at a young age, they have resolved to snatch hold of their destiny. It suggests adversity is the key to exceptional achievement: it's not that little bit more that drives the powerful, it's that little bit less.

There is also evidence that most PDs are caused by childhood maltreatment rather than genes. Several studies suggest that deprivation of love in infancy creates a potential for the disorder which is more likely to be fulfilled if there is subsequent abuse or neglect. At least half of people with PDs suffered abuse in childhood.

For many high achievers, the pursuit of status is a compensation for feelings of worthlessness and despair caused by early adversity. They want to be recognised by strangers because needs went unrecognised in infancy; want money to feel richer than others because they felt poorer, emotionally, as children; and want to have control over others because they were rendered impotent by parental care. They reveal the chain linking childhood adversity to PD to exceptional success.

Such people seem peculiarly ill-suited to the job of setting the parameters of our everyday lives. Most of us do not like working seven days a week for years on end. We take all the holiday we can. That our political and business bosses are so different - driven, even desperate people, compensating for their distress with workaholia - makes them the very last citizens you would logically select to decide your work-life balance.

A few years ago I chaired a debate between several British business figures, of whom one was Sir Brian Pitman (head of Lloyds TSB for 18 years). Over lunch, he revealed that his father had died before he was old enough to know him. Speaking in the debate, he told us that if we thought the present environment was competitive, we "ain't seen nothing yet". Over the next five years companies would be forced to become far more efficient. The principle of "up or out" would become universal: if you don't do well enough to be promoted, you get fired.

I asked if he was concerned about the increased stress this would cause. To my surprise, he appeared not to have given the idea any consideration. Finally, he commented that "you will never stop progress. Children will always want to outdo their parents".

Of course, for those of us who are never going to get near the top of any organisation, the idea that leaders are several sandwiches short of a picnic is reassuring. While we may like to think of ourselves as their moral superiors, we may also be motivated to look down from this moral high ground out of a mixture of envy, thwarted ambition and dislike for authority.

What's more, while leadership is often a dirty business, someone's got to do it. I don't want to work all the time and you probably don't either. Surely you'd prefer a superefficient workaholic to be representing your interests if the alternative was an easygoing, decent chap who couldn't politic his way out of a paper bag?

But these are not the only options. I visited Denmark last year while writing a book about middle-class affluenza. Interviewing Toeger Seidenfaden, a newspaper editor, I was staggered to hear that he leaves work at 4.30pm. British editors are usually still in the office long after their kids have been put to bed. But Toeger has to collect the kids from school and cook the supper and he claims that only a tiny minority of high-achieving Danes are any different. Working long hours is simply culturally unacceptable.

Quite how we get from our Americanised society to one where top editors knock off at teatime I leave to other, harder-working people to decide. Only of this am I sure: the Danes probably don't have the best lager in the world, but emulating their working practices would do us all a power of good.

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