Are Psychopathic Leaders Effective or Harmful?

Topic(s): leadership, personality
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2019)
Article: Shall We Serve the Dark Lords? A Meta-Analytic Review of Psychopathy and Leadership
Authors: K. Landay, P.D. Harms, M. Credé
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

After a number of recent corporate scandals, people became concerned with just how ethical leaders of major corporations may be, and what the implications are if these leaders are not so moral. Popular press articles suggested that corporate leaders might hold greater levels of psychopathic characteristics than the average population. Psychopathy describes a personality that is particularly bold, impulsive, and has a lack of empathy.

Researchers were interested in these types of questions too, so they began to investigate psychopathy in leaders. They examined whether those with psychopathic traits were more likely to emerge as leaders, and if psychopathy was related to better or worse leader effectiveness. However, these studies found different results. Some results suggested that psychopathy relates to higher leadership emergence levels, others found it relates to lower levels, and others found no relationship. Similarly for effectiveness, some research found that leaders with higher psychopathy were perceived as being more effective, but others found that it is associated with negative outcomes such as abusive supervision, lower job satisfaction, and higher turnover intentions. With these mixed findings, what really is the association of psychopathy with leader emergence and effectiveness?


To combine the results across all of these studies, researchers (Landay, Harms, & Credé, 2019) conducted a meta-analysis of leader psychopathy and leadership outcomes. A meta-analysis is a statistical method of combining the results of many studies to find an overall result. In examining the relationship of psychopathy and leader emergence, the meta-analysis results showed a weak, positive relationship. This means that those with higher levels of psychopathy were somewhat more likely to emerge as leaders. On the other hand, results showed that psychopathic tendencies were weakly, negatively related to leadership effectiveness. This suggests that psychopathic leaders are fairly less likely to be effective leaders.

The researchers also examined a specific type of leadership called transformational leadership. This type of leadership describes behavior that inspires followers with a vision to collaborate and make valuable change. The meta-analysis showed that psychopathic tendencies in leaders were related to less transformational leadership behavior. This was especially the case when followers were the ones reporting their leader’s psychopathic and transformational behaviors, rather than leaders or peers reporting their own behavior.


The researchers also explored whether these effects changed depending on whether the leader was male or female. Though the positive influence of psychopathy on leader emergence remained for men, the effect was not nearly as strong for women. This suggests that although psychopathic tendencies may lead to leader emergence for men, the same behaviors may not for women.

Results also indicated that higher psychopathy levels related to increased leadership effectiveness for men, but decreased leadership effectiveness for women. This may be because insensitive and bold actions can be acceptable in male gender roles, but do not fit female gender roles.

Curvilinear relationships describe a U-shaped pattern when plotted out on a graph—in this case an upside down U. When examining a possible curvilinear relationship of psychopathy and leadership effectiveness, the researchers found that the highest levels of leader effectiveness and transformational leadership (at the top of the upside down U shape) were related to moderate or middle levels of psychopathy.


This research helps clarify some of the mixed findings about psychopathy and leadership. The evidence provided some support for anecdotes that those with psychopathic tendencies are more likely to emerge in leadership positions, though not to the extent the public seems to fear. However, monitoring for psychopathic behaviors in corporate leaders may be worthwhile. This is particularly advisable because the results also suggest that higher levels of psychopathy relate to less effective leadership.

Yet, at times psychopathic behavior can lead to more effective leadership. This is more likely at moderate levels of psychopathy. It is also important to be aware that employees may perceive psychopathic behaviors in their leader differently depending on leader gender. Although these tendencies in male leaders can relate to higher levels of leadership effectiveness, psychopathic behaviors in female leaders tend to relate to lower effectiveness.


Landay, K., Harms, P. D., & Credé, M. (2019). Shall we serve the dark lords? A meta-analytic review of psychopathy and leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 183-196.