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Is your administrator a sociopath?

bill lumberghBill Lumbergh, the ultimate sociopath, from Office Space

Across my career as an academic (1995-2011), I was able to work with the best and the worst higher education leaders in the US and EU. I couldn’t help but notice the worst (and many of the “okay”) admins shared characteristics normally associated with the “sociopath.” I am not insinuating that all admins are sociopaths; I am simply asking, for your professional and mental safety: is your administrator a sociopath? If so, what should you do? How should you proceed with your work? What are some ways to escape or evade this person? And how do you recognize these characteristics in yourself?

Click here for additional information about sociopaths and the source for this checklist

1. Sociopaths typically don’t smalltalk about themselves as much as normal people do. They will direct the conversation back to the new acquaintance as much as they can.

  • my favorite bosses were talkers, people who really enjoyed their academic and administrative jobs
  • the worst of the worst were quiet, spoke in short declarative sentences, almost no small talk

2. A sociopath will reveal “personal” details about himself strategically, i.e. for the purposes of misdirection or a false sense of intimacy/trust. Revelations of actual truths are very rare and may be perceived as a small slip of the mask.

  • my favorite admins were able to merge their life and their work; they were unafraid to take off the mask
  • the worst of the worst wore many masks; they also were very strategic in connecting life and work

3. Sociopaths frequently hesitate before responding. It will be unclear to you whether they are bored, annoyed, lying, or all three.

  • my favorite superiors were animated, engaged, alive, and very much putting it all “out there”
  • the ones who worried me always seemed “bored” and “annoyed”; they were also living multiple lies

4. No strong reactions to illogical hotbed political/social topics (e.g. Octomom or Catholic priest child molestation).

  • my favorite admins were very much willing to debate or discuss pressing college or national politics
  • the nightmares viewed all strong opinions and positions as suspect; they always called to reason

5. Monotone voice (I am told).

  • this one doesn’t generally apply to college admins in my experience
  • tone isn’t the best measure of personality given the different tones an admin needs to succeed

6. A tendency to take things too literally or otherwise not respond appropriately to small emotional cues.

  • the best were very secure, understood their mission, and supported the faculty–all with a sense of balance
  • the worst displayed behaviors exactly described in #6

7. Cold indifference to one or more family members.

  • this one is hard to bring into the discussion but the best were very much connected to their partners, families, and close acquaintances and colleagues
  • the dangerous admins seemed to just arrive out of thin air with no ties to anyone or any community

8. Seemingly a different person when “distracted.”

  • when distracted or stressed, the best admins were able to keep it together and increase their personality strengths to complete the task
  • the utter lunatics I worked for not only displayed multiple personalities in crisis but also seemed to perpetuate the crises for the sake of “the rush” (these people also were unable to work in a normal situationl; they created and recreated the conditions of triage, never something akin to an emergency plan or protocol or reasoned response to crisis)

9. Disconnect between what the sociopath says and does, e.g. seems charitable but does not give money to homeless or vice versa.

  • the best were as aligned as their policies and leadership which oftentimes sought to help the least among the faculty, staff, or students
  • the worst had a very hard time understanding the direct role their decisions played in creating the conditions of misery on campus

10. Never shows signs of embarrassment. Easily wins over large crowds with confidence. “Poise” in this case = lack of nerves.

  • the admins I admired were fearless and extremely humble in the face of the campus, yet they were able to express their confidence while also not losing touch with their fears
  • the admins I avoided were 100% all the time, all 100% of the time (yikes)

11. Does not fit stereotypes for gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or career. Could seem foreign, bisexual, older or younger, pious, wealthy or poor, but may also just seem unplaceable.

  • it’s hard to see the application here but there was a very generic quality to the worst of the worst

12. Can flip flop between keeping a very low profile (the observer) to being the life of the party (the actor).

  • not sure this applies but the quiet, passive admin in the midst of public events was oftentimes happy ot play the loud, busiest bee behind the scenes

One thing that needs to be noted are gender differences in administrative styles; I’m sure this is a factor in my reaction to any and all administrators.

So, how does your best and worst administrators stand up to this extremely non-scientific test?


About Dean RCB

Dean of Academics Lebanon College Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts Writer & Producer (theatre, television, film) Composer & Producer RCB lives in the Upper Valley with his wife and four boys.

4 responses to “Is your administrator a sociopath?

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  3. Fgordon ⋅

    The best ones motivated and had vision

    Sadly the worst most of whom I worked with were either passive aggressive or incompetent and just did not belong in the field.

    • Why do they seek out their positions, then? Passive aggressive is actually a very aggressive way of manipulating governance. Incompetence can result in criminal negligence. So, I’m with you. I’m just curious to learn more (in general) about these people you describe

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