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morning manager

Well before accusations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, the movie mogul was one of Mark Lipton's poster boys for a troubling set of characteristics the management professor calls "mean men."

Steve Jobs, Uber's Travis Kalanick, American Apparel's Dov Charney, disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and the current President of the United States are also high on the list.

They are not just driven or tough. They are downright mean – showing signs of psychopathy – and Mr. Lipton feels it's important we understand the phenomena.

"At the extreme, we have people with psychiatric disorders leading organizations, companies and my country," says Mr. Lipton, a professor at The New School in New York.

You may work with a mean man.

It first surfaced for Mr. Lipton when he was working in the late 1990s with founders of some hot dot-com companies who troubled him: "There was a dark side to them I had not experienced before consulting with top executives." He was a management professor, not a psychologist, so when the consulting gigs ended, he drifted off.

But his unease stayed with him and he noted the phenomenon in other fields where people with an entrepreneurial mentality can thrive, notably sports, politics, elements of religion and non-profits. After six months on a fellowship at a psychiatric hospital, he was better armed to understand it and research his new book, Mean Men.

Entrepreneurs have various enviable characteristics that distinguish them from others but some, if too strong, can turn them into what he calls "monsters of management." In particular, need for achievement, for autonomy, for control, impulsivity, suspicion of others, risk-taking, and self-confidence, all of which can be helpful, can also be dangerous, especially when you add in testosterone.

He says Mr. Weinstein's alleged actions were "not about sexual fulfilment but control."

Many of these figures Mr. Lipton studied are deceitful and difficult to work with – they start enterprises in partnership with somebody else, but that relationship is ultimately ruptured. They lack empathy and are unable to feel emotions such as love. They have a warped sense of confidence that turns into a dangerous narcissism. As well, he says, "Their impulsivity runs amok. Entrepreneurs take risks but these guys are predisposed to take really big risks."

His sample group are all men, in part because the literature he studied of entrepreneurs in recent years was primarily male. But on his office wall, he has a picture of hotelier Leona Helmsley, once dubbed The Queen of Mean, smiling as she is being booked by police for tax evasion. Still, he says that females are taught from a young age to express their anger differently. "While inherent goodness isn't gendered, how we react to and regard the expression of mean traits reflect a gender bias in society," he writes.

He delineates six types of mean men:

  • The Opportunist: This version is arrogant, has callous disregard for others, and is adept at facile deception. They are unscrupulous and amoral in relationships, doing anything to get what they want. In the interview, he cites Lance Armstrong.
  • Two Face: This mean man seems friendly, sociable and caring but it’s a façade. He points to Mr. Sandusky, who told the judge how much he cared about his students, many of whom he raped.
  • The Cowboy: A thrill junkie who takes any chance to prove himself, infatuated with new possibilities and uncharted territory. He says Mr. Kalanick’s risk-taking led to Uber growing very fast but also ultimately put the company in a dire position.
  • Mr. Dissatisfaction: Might also be called Mr. Aggrandizement. He feels life is not giving him his due. Feels highly insecure despite his achievements and is prone to conspicuous consumption. Meet Donald Trump.
  • The Hothead: He is usually infamous for his “adult tantrums” – unpredictable and sudden displays of hostility. Here he points to Mr. Weinstein.
  • The Dogmatist: Everything for this person is a chance to nag and win an argument. Steve Jobs fit the bill.

If you're working for any of these types, you want to avoid being derailed by their emotional state. Step back when you are off-kilter and try to assess what is happening, and how to extricate yourself. Limit your contact to the individual, even if he's your boss.

Mr. Lipton talks of one woman who had people alert her when Mr. Charney was coming to her office and she would leave, to avoid him. Try to avoid their phone calls and slow their pace by not returning e-mail promptly. They need action, and if you don't help, they may turn to others. It's no guarantee you will escape unscathed but if you end up working for a mean man you may need all the help you can get.

And if you're a mean man, you also need help.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.