Imagine the absolute worst.
Your boss summons you to his office. Once you're inside, he races behind you to slam the door shut. Then he fires a chair across the room in your direction.
"You son of a bitch!" he screams at you. "Don't you know who you work for?"
"Yes, I do," you manage to say.
"I didn't ask you to talk. Shut your mouth!"
And when you stay quiet, only to have still more abuse and derision heaped on you, the boss begins knocking his fist on an imaginary door.
"Well, hello," he says mockingly. "Is anybody there?"
Fiction? I'm afraid not. It's a real scene from a book I wrote a few years ago about "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, the former CEO of both Sunbeam and Scott Paper. Al was the boss. The guy on the end of this inhuman tirade was his head of human resources at Sunbeam.
In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from ever serving as an officer of a public corporation, Dunlap sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.
Oh, sure, he was none too fond of me, either. He once told a reporter for The New York Times, "If he were on fire, I wouldn't piss on him."
I tell this story in the context of this month's cover package on psychopathic bosses and the organizational havoc they wreak. As Martha Stout, a psychologist at the Harvard Medical School, tells us, "People see sociopathy [a synonym for "psychopathy"] in their personal lives, and they don't have a clue that it has a label or that others have encountered it." Our goal is to help our readers recognize this aberrant species of leader, effectively deal with them, and then hopefully root them out of the workplace. After all, as Stout notes, "It goes against our intuition that a small percentage of people can be so different from the rest of us — and so evil."
Many of these figures are the proverbial bosses from hell. Not merely abusive but worse: manipulative, deceitful, ruthless, even slightly psychopathic. Unfortunately, we've all seen an endless parade of such types in courtrooms all around the country, thanks to the most recent wave of corporate scandals.
And for every destructive and crooked boss heading off to jail, there are thousands of junior Captain Queegs out there. They poison the work environment, spreading fear and apprehension. They ridicule colleagues, have a grandiose sense of self-worth, and fail to accept responsibility for their own actions. Most of them get away with it because they deliver the results — if only in the short term.
In this month's provocative cover story by senior writer Alan Deutschman, we turn our attention to this dark and scary side of leadership. This is the antithesis of a Fast Company leader. The psychopathic boss doesn't understand that the job of leadership is to fully utilize human potential, to create organizations in which people can grow and learn while still achieving a common objective, to nurture the human spirit. This leader is devoted to self and self alone. Business history is populated by such creatures, from Henry Ford and Walt Disney to Harold Geneen and Andy Fastow.
I've known plenty of colleagues who have had the misfortune of reporting to dysfunctional bosses. But I've also been lucky enough never to come too close to one — except as a reporter. It's a safe distance.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.