Personality disorders are all the rage these days. Psychopathy (indistinguishable in popular media from sociopathy) has been enjoying a particularly warm moment in the sun.
The idea that certain human beings who seem immune to stress, exhibit poor impulse control, and lack empathy not only can “live among us” undetected but can even thrive and outcompete their colleagues has a certain dark allure. Every year there seems to be more and more books written on the subject, from The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success to Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight. Even the hit BBC series Sherlock features a “high-functioning sociopath” who outwits criminal masterminds, all with their own unique pathologies.
But what does this have to do with board governance? Last year, Forbes magazine published an article titled “The Disturbing Link between Psychopathy and Leadership,” which summarized the work of psychologists Paul Babiak and Robert Hare. In 2006 the pair came out with a book on psychopaths in the corporate world, Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. And then in 2010 they published a study, “Corporate Psychopathy: Talking the Walk,” with C. S. Neumann. The study concluded that “approximately 3% of those assessed in this management development program study scored in the psychopath range – well above the incidence of 1% in the general population. By comparison, the incidence of psychopathy in prison populations is estimated at around 15%.”
Three percent doesn’t seem all that significant, but when I think of the culture in which seminary boards exist, it raises some interesting questions. Can psychopaths respond to the gospel mandate to take up one’s cross and follow Christ? Or, more pressingly, what does that look like?
The characterization is that psychopaths are all wolves in sheep’s clothing. Is that true? Can wolves be redeemed and become wise as serpents and innocent as doves? If a psychopath links their success with the success of the institution, can their disorder be an asset?
I don’t know enough to answer these questions with any confidence. I do know, however, that boards pull their members from the corporate world and from leaders in the church. They govern schools that attract individuals with intentions of developing themselves for leadership roles. These are all highly motivated and highly competitive people. And while we might believe the altruistic nature of ministry and, to some extent, seminary leadership would never attract pathologically selfish individuals, the sense of recognition and power that comes with leadership roles might just be reward enough for the right personality.