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Why are all of our leaders, bosses, and politicians so terrible at their jobs?

Terrible bosses are everywhere, but there may be a way to get rid of them.

Did you ever wonder why so many of the people in positions of power seem to be ill-suited for their roles? Abusive bosses, indifferent administrators, sadistic managers, clownish public figures, and belligerent police officers have become stock characters on the news and in our lives. Why do we do a terrible job of selecting leaders?

According to Brian Klaas, the author of “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us,” the sources of the problem are deep and varied. Some of it is the supply of who wants to become leaders: The wrong people are often drawn to power for the wrong reasons and those who might make a constructive contribution often decline to put themselves forward. Some of the problem is what we demand of leaders: We harbor a long list of self-defeating preferences that ensure “badly skewed decisions about who we put in charge.” And once we put one of those bad actors in charge, the systems in place often encourage bad behavior.

Some of the insights in Klass’ new book are unexpected. We all know of the tendency to favor those most like ourselves, but this extends well beyond race and gender. In one study, participants consistently “picked the worse leader who was from their own school.” A long list of other irrelevant factors impact leadership selection, but these still interact bizarrely with race and gender. So, for instance, taller men can count on undeserved extra lifetime advancement and earnings, but taller women not so much.

The good news is that Mr. Klaas, a political science professor and Washington Post columnist, believes that “with concerted efforts and the right reforms” these destructive systemic tendencies can be reversed and we can begin to select better leaders. This optimistic conclusion is based on a wide swath of social science research on both people and animals. “Corruptible” presents these studies in a digestible and accessible way, interlacing the technical aspects with interviews of academics and a diverse array of world leaders.

The book ends with 10 “lessons” to counteract the documented phenomena that too often leave us with corrupt, vindictive, or incompetent leaders. These are a generally sensible list of practical improvements that seems to point to a bright future filled with better leaders. But there is one catch. Klaas’s optimism seems downright foolish in the face of his description of “the dark triad,” a particularly pernicious combination of qualities apparently found with surprising persistence in our leaders.

‘A small number of destructive people can make a big difference’

The three components of the dark triad are Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. The last of these – described by Mr. Klass as “the darkest trait of the dark triad” – combines a lack of empathy with a manipulative ability to nonetheless fool “others into thinking they’re kind and compassionate. Social scientists believe psychopathy can be measured with a questionnaire on a scale of zero to 40 with a score of 22 or above representing a potential psychopath and above 30 being a definite. In an influential study of high potential executives across major corporations, almost 5% scored above 30.

Five percent may sound low, but this result implies that “there are about 20 times more psychopaths in corporate leadership than in the general population.” And a little psychopathy – particularly when paired with other dark triad qualities – can go a long way in a company or a country when the holder has secured a top job. “A small number of destructive people can make a big difference,” Corruptible notes, particularly given that “where the dark triad is most overrepresented are many of the most influential areas of society.”

More importantly, few of the “lessons” proffered in “Corruptible” seem to provide much protection against such individuals. For instance, the various screening tools suggested to weed out the worst candidates are not likely to be much help given that “for narcissistic, Machiavellian psychopaths the standard job interview,” which will likely continue to be used indefinitely, “is the perfect format.” Similarly, the multiple strategies suggested to make those in power more empathetic towards those whose decisions they affect will have little impact on your garden variety psychopath.

Even the wiliest and most charming psychopaths slip up, however. Psychopaths are typically convinced that “they’re cleverer than the rest of the population.” This profound arrogance may be their Achilles heel as it leads to foolish risk-taking. Maybe the most important lesson of “Corruptible” is that when psychopaths inadvertently reveal their true selves, the institutions that they plague must take action that is swift, brutal and merciless.

Jonathan A. Knee is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Business School and a Senior Advisor at Evercore. His most recent book, “The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans,” was released in September.

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