Psychopaths in suits

If the word psychopath conjures up serial killers Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, the reality is that the blood-and-guts brigade are unlikely to get you.

The bad news is that there’s a sub-species that will not slice you up and savour the wet bits but they’re a lot closer to home and, paradoxically, harder to spot.

There is a psychopath on your stoep, on the golf course, in your book club, at your school reunion, between your sheets, even, rather disappointingly, behind the pulpit. In business they suck in their acolytes like a grade five hurricane.

Take Brett Kebble.
At the height of his power, 41-year-old Kebble was seen as a colourful character known for his flamboyant lifestyle, overt generosity and a championing of black empowerment.

Although there were dark mutterings about his unorthodox business methods while he was alive, posthumously it was Pandora’s box.

Kebble was exposed in the ongoing and protracted court case over his execution as one of the century’s major confidence tricksters who dealt with perceived threats—in the one instance we know of, according to evidence presented at the South Gauteng High Court—by organising a conveniently debilitating stay in hospital for the ‘obstacle”.

‘The role of sociopaths in business’
At an investigative journalism workshop at Wits University in August 2006 on the Kebble story, Martin Weltz, the Noseweek editor, remarked that he had ‘long been interested in the role of sociopaths in business—conmen, people who have the most unbelievable skills, like selling fridges in the Antarctic. South Africa also has its own community of conmen in business and Brett Kebble was one.”

Weltz used the term sociopath but psychopath seems more apt. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, some psychologists see a sociopath’s crimes as typically disorganised and spontaneous, while a psychopath’s crimes are well planned. For this reason, psychopaths are harder to catch. Kebble’s organisation and reach point to the latter.

Psychopaths may be obvious in a postmortem of the results of their actions but spotting them before the destruction is not that easy. They walk into a room and scan your barcode in minutes, capturing your likes, dislikes, motives, needs and—most gratifying for them—your weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

They can smell a needy person the way a pig smells a truffle. Once they have discovered your Achilles heel, they formulate a plan and play you. Could this be a major component of Kebble’s ability to con some of the smartest business brains in the country?

Psychopaths endear themselves to their victims and bond quickly. They move through four classic phases of entrapment adroitly—‘I like who you are. I am just like you. Your secret is safe with me. This relationship is perfect.”

Although there is consensus about the modus operandi of psychopaths, there are different models and criteria used by psychiatrists and forensic psychologists to define them. The best current understanding is that psychopathy, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is a ‘mental disorder characterised by a lack of empathy and guilt, as impulsivity, egocentricity and a chronic violation of social, moral and legal norms”.

The dark side
Barry Sergeant, the author of The Inside Story, which exposes many of Kebble’s dark secrets and explores his links with some of South Africa’s elite, concludes that Kebble exhibited signs of this conscience vacuum.

‘From an early age he was fascinated by contraband and certainly by the early ‘90s he was involved heavily in smuggling so-called blood diamonds from Angola and later the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo],” he writes. ‘Locally, from 2002 he became seriously involved with the top gangster mob in Johannesburg.”

If the picture seems all dark, a perverse aura of glamour surrounds psychopaths. In what is considered the best ‘psychopaths unpacked” book on the market, The Mask of Sanity, author Hervey Cleckley writes about the ability of psychopaths to put on a normal, even charming façade.

He describes them as having the same ice running through their veins (as serial killers) — ‘with a tot of bitters”. But victims of these ‘intra-species predators” describe their encounters as a figurative disembowelment. The victims are left dazed, raw, with no self-esteem and at odds with their own identity. The psychopaths feel nothing but satisfaction.

Why, then, is there so much measurement of, work and on interest in what constitutes 4% of the population? There is a common thread in all of them—the absence of their private Jiminy Cricket, the inner mechanism that chastises us when we are selfish, unethical or immoral. Arguably then, there is no place more perfect for a psychopath to operate in with the guise of legitimacy than the business world.

In the book Snakes in Suits Robert Hare and Paul Babiak describe how organisations will hire confident, out-of-the-box thinkers who will rattle the cage of the organisation—the kind of tough chief executive who will streamline the company ruthlessly for greater profit, regardless of the human fallout. It is fertile ground for the psychopath.

Kebble’s own words strike an ominous note. ‘I was held as the new Barney Barnato and my family was lauded for our role in making it possible for a new breed of independent mining operators to revitalise marginal mines, saving thousands of jobs and creating profit for shareholders,” Kebble wrote to journalist Deon Basson after a series of stories about one of the subisidiaries of a major Kebble company.

Tumbling down
‘I am still the person I was then, although the intervening decades have seen some grey streaks in my hair. But these days, if you believed everything you read, you could be forgiven for thinking very bad things about me. Those — who try to portray me as a dubious businessman say that the companies I control are shaking and sooner or later the whole house of cards will come tumbling down — There isn’t a word of truth in the whole story.”

Grandiose, deceitful, lacking in empathy, unable to accept responsibility, arrogant—these are hardly subtle personality traits, so why is it so difficult to recognise and to defend yourself against them?

It is simple. They are masters of manipulation, the key to their survival and success. They manipulate without shame, empathy or acknowledgement of the victim.

In Snakes in Suits we are told one of the most painful and fundamental mistakes we make is ‘to assume that everyone has much the same capacity as we do for emotional experiences”.

Pathological lying is the hallmark of psychopaths. If you catch them telling lies, they glibly tell more, adapting their convoluted and ludicrous story slightly for friend, family or common or garden sucker. With not a frisson of shame. Or conscience.

In the Mask of Sanity Cleckley says everyone assumes that conscience is universal among human beings, so hiding the fact that you are conscience free is nearly effortless.

Sergeant makes the point in The Inside Story that society’s inadvertent collusion is part of the problem. ‘If you understand the role Brett played in this country’s economy and what he was allowed to get way with then his story is a savage indictment on South Africa as a society.

Had he been brought to task a lot earlier he’d still be alive today. He’d probably be in prison and convicted of many things. But he was very much a function of the society he lived in as well as a function of his own genius.”

In the final act Kebble arranged his death much as he lived—with money, manipulation, flamboyance and what he believed would be a middle finger to his life insurers. The trouble is that when a psychopath dies, his control dies too. The emotional and financial mess he makes in life is never his problem. It’s ours. For once, no one can argue.

Kathy Malherbe is a freelance writer

*This story originally appeared in a longer form in the September issue of Private Edition.

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