For decades, I've wondered why so many CEOs (especially those running large companies) act like selfish jackasses. While I've met a few exceptions, highly successful CEOs are frequently bullies, indulge in high risk behavior, and generally seem unable to see the world from any perspective other than their own self-interest.

I've always assumed that CEO jackassery was due to natural selection: Sociopaths naturally rise to the top. However, the business behaviors required to "rise to the top"--like courting investors, inspiring teams, building alliances, and so forth--require EQ, in the form of the very people skills these CEOs seem to lack. What's that all about?

A recent article published in Atlantic Monthly documents multiple scientific studies that revealed that people who exercise power over other people on a regular basis can suffer from actual brain damage, which, if not treated (I'll get to that in a moment), can become permanent.

Studies spanning two decades at UC Berkeley discovered that people who have power over others become "more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people's point of view."

Similarly, brain scans conducted at McMaster University in Ontario revealed that the exercise of power impairs the brain's ability to "mirror" others, without which empathy becomes difficult if not impossible.

Even the temporary exercise of power can suppress mirror neurons. In one test, students given "power" over other students were three times less likely to be able to draw the letter "E" on their forehead so that it would look like an "E" to other people; instead, the empowered drew the "E" as it would look to them.

While the test subjects in that study quickly recovered their ability to mirror, the neuroplasticity of the human brain means that the longer and more intensely that a person exercises power, the harder it is for them to recover that capability.

This why many highly successful CEOs, like Elon Musk and Travis Kalanick, start exhibiting whacky behaviors, while others, like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, seem weirdly disconnected from the rest of the world. They've damaged their brains to the point that it's difficult for them to feel empathy.

Fortunately for CEOs and would-be CEOs who'd like to keep their brains intact, there are two ways to prevent the loss of empathy and even reverse the process:

  1. Put yourself into a position of powerlessness. One cure for hubris (which is what the ancients called this kind of brain damage) is to be in, or to put yourself in, situations where your power is useless. For a CEO, this might entail, for example, traveling solo to places where you're not known with only limited access to your money.
  2. Surround yourself with honest people. For the powerful nothing is more valuable than being around people who aren't afraid to take you down a peg. A spouse or group of friends who "knew you when" can provide this valuable function, but basically anyone who's neither beholden to you nor expecting to get anything from you might do as well.

None of this is to say that CEOs who act like jackasses shouldn't be held to account. The damage, while real, is self-inflicted and can be cured. Hopefully some of the big-name CEOs will take heed; for the rest of us, well, forewarned is forearmed.