Of Leaders, Sociopaths, and Education

June 6, 2016

For two decades I worked as a part of management system change and improvement in the US and several countries in Europe, South America and Asia. Most of my work focused on the suppliers of the automotive and aerospace industries with later work in the corporate centers of large appliance makers. This experience came on the heels of two decades as a college teacher and college department chair, during which time I was also elected to the state House of Representatives. I mention these experiences to let you know that my experience in the areas of systems management and leadership is not limited to academic training and research. Along those lines, I did attend and graduate from the University of Minnesota’s Leadership Academy with a doctorate degree, which provided some fundamental tools and skills that assisted me perform my work, as well as an opportunity to study my experience as a kind of elongated action research project.

Obviously with a name like the Leadership Academy my learning about systems focused on the ways leaders influence the organizations / systems / agencies in which they reside. This learning led to opportunities to work with international governing bodies that sought to bring about a common understanding of systems management by defining the component parts of what ought to comprise a management system and at the same time provide for a method to gain certification for understanding and implementing the system. The standardized systems were given the titles of ISO 9000 (the overall management system standard, which is embedded in the two standards that follow), TS 16949 (the international automotive management system standard), and AS 9100 (the aerospace management system standard).

The management system schemes of ISO 9000, TS 16949, and AS 9100 directly impact the making of products and the delivering of services in millions of organizations worldwide and hundreds of millions of their workers.

Even to a casual reader of the three standards, one observation jumps out of the standards’ narrative – leadership is the most important aspect of a management system. Each of the standards provides more words, more space and its most challenging requirements for those who are called upon to lead organizations.


The key reason is that the wise men and women selected from many countries by the organizations residing in those countries (the management system standards are self-imposed; they are not government issued and enforced standards) had learned the truth from their own experiences. Leadership matters. As well, research study after research study confirms that leadership is the key element to the success of an organization.

Of course there are other key elements. However, if you apply a negative measure – the failure of a management system leading to the failure of its organization, leadership, as the chief cause, wins hand down.


Two words: commitment and decisions.

People follow leaders for a number of reasons. But a reason which eclipses all others is commitment. This is especially true in the work-a-day world. We look to see what our leaders are committed to because we trust action over words; particularly, when it has to do with our chief source of income, our jobs. The provision for us to gain the money to pay for mortgages, kids’ braces, car payments, groceries, school tuition, sports equipment, etc., is without any doubt of importance for each of us. Of course, we desire job satisfaction and the fulfillment that comes with it. But without adequate take home pay, fulfillment is much harder to achieve.

So, we look to see what matters to our executive management in the organizations in which we labor. We rationalize that if I can do those things that are truly important to my leaders, then I can be confident that my job and paycheck will continue….and I can relax enough in that confidence to do my best work.

But what if we can’t really tell what our leaders are committed to? What if our leaders are very good at providing lip service to what they claim to be important, but do not invest themselves into their claim? It only takes a few times, and we recognize that permission is not really commitment. We recognize that a leader that wants the workers to learn something, but does not subject himself or herself to the same learning opportunity, is not really committed. And when this is combined with actions that obviously do not reflect the learning we gained, we lose faith in the leader’s commitment and with it our sense of confidence in the stability of our own ability to take correct actions.

Commitment proven through action is the path that overcomes what most have come to expect from leaders – that is, opinion supported by power; power enabled by position. Whether it is intentional or not, a follower that has witnessed his or her leader ask for commitment, but not require it of himself or herself, has her or his fears about leadership reinforced. We have thoughts like – they are not like us; they live by different rules, reinforced.

What you may not know (or believe) is that taken to a level of “3” this behavior mirrors and/or is sociopathic.


Those who study sociopathy agree to at least two conclusions:

  1. 1 in 25 of all who walk the face of earth could be considered sociopaths.
  2. Sociopaths can and do, with frequency, fill positions of leadership.

In her book, The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout, provides 13 guidelines for dealing with sociopaths. Each of the 13 describes a way to combat a particular behavior. The behavior that is described as one the most clearly characteristic of sociopaths is lying. Dr. Stout states that the purpose for lying is central to a sociopath’s agenda – manipulation. She states that for most of us we should use a ‘Rule of 3’ to protect ourselves from the manipulation. That is, one lie might be a misunderstanding. Two lies might be a serious mistake. But three lies most often indicate chronic behavior. Once 3 lies have been detected, then avoidance of the person is the only defense. You are dealing with a sociopath.

My conclusions about leadership and sociopathy is based on my experience and is based on studies like the ones shared by Dr. Stout, also themselves, result in a kind of ‘rule of 3’.

  1. Sociopaths can be mistaken for leaders.
  2. Many of our current leaders were taught by the actions of leaders who were sociopaths.
  3. We, as followers and leaders, can rely on one litmus test for true leadership – COMMITMENT. True leaders commit. True leaders attend the professional development that they require of others. True leaders seek and apply facts. True leaders work with individuals to assist them come to their own conclusions.

I have worked for and have witnessed a few sociopaths in leadership positions. I have, unfortunately, witnessed and worked for several sociopathic-like leaders. My conclusion is that it was due to their misunderstanding of commitment.

But….I have also had the good fortune to work for, work with, and witness many good leaders.

An observation I will end with, but will attempt later to discuss in more detail is this. I have found that education leadership is occupied by a shocking number of sociopaths and/or sociopathic-like leaders. Many more than I experienced in business and industry. Why is that?

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