The Mask of Sanity

Robert Maxwell (yes… the father of sex-offender Ghislaine Maxwell) was a British media proprietor and politician. He was considered a brilliant businessman who could be quite charismatic and charming. Yet, he also stole millions of pounds from his companies’ pension funds (leaving pensioners without savings), ruled through intimidation, fear and terror, would blame others when things went wrong, deceived and lied, and reportedly shot dead unarmed prisoners as a soldier during World War 2. Some therefore argue that Robert Maxwell has the characteristics of a so-called ‘corporate psychopath’ (see Boddy, 2016). Leaders who exhibit these characteristics often engage in harmful behaviors such as abusive leadership, sexual misconduct, fraud, and bullying. They are primarily focused on their own gains, even at the expense of others, using twisted justifications for their actions. They lie, cheat, and manipulate without feeling guilty about it. In fact, they sometimes even enjoy inflicting harm on others.

You’d hope these people get filtered out during the organization’s selection process. Yet, they often attain leadership positions and may even be found in leadership positions more often than in the general population —particularly in upper management positions. In our paper (Wisse et al., in press), we explain how this is possible.


Corporate psychopaths often attain leadership positions


The starting point for our recently published study on this matter was work by Cleckley (1941). He described people with psychopathic traits as individuals who can perfectly mimic a normally functioning person, but who cloak a host of disagreeable and self-serving tendencies. They appear normal, but they are not. In other words, psychopathic individuals are thought to ‘hide behind a mask of sanity’. But anyone who has ever tried to hide their feelings and act in a more socially desirable way than they felt (and who hasn’t?), knows how hard this can be. So, suppose these leaders with dark traits are really able to hide behind a mask. In that case, they should be experts in emotion regulation and be really good at manipulating their emotional expressions to influence how they are perceived by their subordinates.

Setting out to put this idea to the test, we collected data from 306 teams (with leaders and their subordinates as our respondents) across various organizations in the Netherlands. The survey assessed psychopathic traits in leaders, along with other measures to evaluate leaders’ emotion regulation strategies (surface acting, deep acting, and display of naturally felt emotions) and subordinates’ perceptions (authenticity of the leader and trust in the leader). Our results were fascinating.


Surface acting, deep acting, and real expression

First, leaders with higher levels of psychopathy were more inclined to engage in surface acting. This form of emotion regulation involves feigning emotions that are not genuinely felt, which suits the deceptive nature of psychopathic individuals. Surface acting –basically: faking feelings– was associated with higher perceptions of leader authenticity among subordinates if done by leaders with stronger psychopathic tendencies, paradoxically enhancing trust. This finding suggests that psychopathic leaders are adept at crafting a convincing façade of emotional expression that fools followers into perceiving them as genuine.

Second, deep acting, which requires genuine emotional engagement, was less effective for leaders with stronger psychopathic tendencies, due to their lack of empathy. When these leaders attempted deep acting, it negatively predicted their perceived authenticity and, consequently, the trust that subordinates had in these leaders. This negative outcome underscores the difficulty leaders with psychopathic tendencies face in genuinely connecting with emotional displays that require real empathy.

Finally, we also found that followers tended to trust leaders with higher psychopathic tendencies more when these leaders displayed their naturally felt emotions to a larger extent. Actually, we did not expect this beforehand, because those with higher psychopathic tendencies tend not to have very pleasant and positive emotions; instead, if they feel anything it is mainly anger and discontentment. But perhaps the clarity and predictability offered by such (honest) displays of (undesirable) emotions help subordinates to better understand and anticipate the leader’s actions (and that is extra important if the leader is a psycho).


By manipulating emotional expressions through surface acting, psychopathic leaders exploit the perceptions of their subordinates to maintain power and control.


All in all, we found that leaders with psychopathic characteristics can manipulate subordinate perceptions through strategic emotional displays. By manipulating emotional expressions through surface acting, these leaders exploit the perceptions of their subordinates to maintain power and control. This challenges the traditional understanding that deep acting is always more effective than surface acting (Grandey & Melloy, 2017), showing that the effectiveness of these strategies depends on the leader’s personality traits. For organizations, our findings highlight the importance of developing methods to identify and mitigate the influence of psychopathy in leadership roles. This may involve refining recruitment and evaluation processes to detect superficial charm and deceptive behavior more effectively. If organizations can’t prevent the psychopaths from rising to the top, at least they can try to reduce their negative impact. For the victims of Robert Maxwell this advice comes too late. Maxwell died long ago (1991), arguably drowning after he fell overboard from his yacht when urinating into the ocean.


Image credit: photo by Lucas Pezeta (licensed free to use).



Boddy, C. R. (2016). Unethical 20th century business leaders: Were some of them corporate psychopaths? The case of Robert Maxwell. International Journal of Public Leadership, 12(2), 76-93.

Cleckley, H. (1941). The mask of sanity; an attempt to reinterpret the so-called psychopathic personality. Mosby.

Grandey, A. A., & Melloy, R. C. (2017). The state of the heart: Emotional labor as emotion regulation reviewed and revised. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 407-422.

Wisse, B., Sleebos, E., & Keller, A. C. (in press). The mask of sanity? Leader primary psychopathy and the effects of leader emotion regulation strategies on followers. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies.

Barbara Wisse is professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership processes at the University of Groningen and currently also Programme Director of the Psychology Department. Her work focuses explicitly on (bright and dark sides of) power and leadership processes and often includes topics such as ethics and morality, emotions, Dark Triad personality traits and the psychological effects of change.

For more information on Barbara’s research, visit her web page here.

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