This Sunday marks the long-awaited debut of season 6 of Mad Men, the chic drama set in Manhattan’s advertising industry, circa 1960s. Millions of devoted viewers will tune in to watch the louche Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) dive into one emotional mosh pit after another, inflicting juicy collateral damage along the way. When asked recently whether he thought his character was a “sociopath, or even a psychopath”, Hamm responded, “I don’t think that’s inaccurate…but he is probably a very high functioning one”.
Is being a sociopath a prerequisite for business success? It would seem that way—both in fiction and in real life.
Whether it was J. R Ewing played by Larry Hagman on Dallas or Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, people who play by their own set of rules and who have no qualms about instilling fear in others, often rise to the top which is bad news for nice guys (and girls).
After Ewing was shot during a cliffhanger episode in season 2, the ensuing promotional campaign asked, “Who Shot J.R?” Viewers were stumped because every character on the show had a plausible reason to want to kill him. Jobs may not have elicited murderous yearnings in his colleagues but, after reading his biography, it’s clear that ‘warm and fuzzy’ was not his management style. Jobs regularly berated his staff in public and, even though he had millions to give, denied share grants to individuals who had been critical to the firm’s early success, this among his many other morally indefensible actions.
Yet, why are we drawn to these kinds of people? One reason may be that they express what we have been socialized to repress. We want people to like us and think well of us, whereas they don’t give a toss.
On Breaking Bad, Walter White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher, inexorably transforms himself into a methamphetamine kingpin. Perversely, we want him to succeed even when it’s clear he’s a monster. We were equally riveted by prisoner #61727054, also known as Bernie Madoff, who perpetrated a $70 billion Ponzi scheme on Hollywood celebrities and Midwestern charities alike.
Madoff’s potential clients pulled every social connection to have the famous Bernie Madoff take their money. Likewise, Apple employees must have handed over their own power by the bucketload to Jobs. Perhaps it’s something in our nature that we need an alpha, someone who is willing to spit and snarl and give us sharp nips, to keep us running ever faster?
Every time a new lovely tumbles into bed with Don on Mad Men, we want to yell ‘No! It’s the kiss of Death!’ but tumble they do and that’s what keeps us watching. Could Apple have become Apple if Jobs were more sympathetic and less sociopathic? We’ll never know, although the company’s current fortunes appear less buoyant than during the Jobs’ Reign-of-Terror.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman talks of ‘dissonant leaders’—a polite way of saying people who think nothing of ripping your face off in public. For example, someone like John Patterson, the founder of NCR, who would terminate an employee by setting his desk and chair on fire on the company lawn. According to an executive headhunter at Egon Zehnder in London, this style can only work if the leader also happens to be a genius, and, oh, there’s a steady market for the company’s products or services.
Of course, being on the receiving end of a sociopath’s wrath can make you feel rotten. Unfortunately, most of the time your only option is to remove yourself from the situation before it can cause you any more damage.
If you decide to tough it out, you can take some solace from a something Elizabeth Taylor once said: “Money is the best deodorant.” Don Draper’s character flaws are alluring because he’s successful and deadly attractive. But should he lose a few big accounts and gain a paunch, then he’s just your garden-variety sociopath. And then we’ll stop watching.
Image credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC – © Copyright: AMC 2012