While CEO of Union Pacific Corporation, Drew Lewis was given a 5-week leave of absence to attend an alcohol rehab. A little over a year later, he was arrested for driving under the influence. He remained at the company until his retirement in December 1996. After he left Union Pacific, he continued to struggle with alcoholism. He was charged with drunk driving in 2001 and given a 30-day sentence, which he served in an alcohol treatment center.2
A CEO is probably one of the last people you’d expect to have a problem with drugs or alcohol. They’re successful, they’re often rich, and they enjoy a lifestyle most people dream of. But none of these things insulate them from the ravages of addiction. In fact, the traits that make CEOs successful can in some cases contribute to the development of substance abuse problems. And because of their money and positions, many of them can hide a growing addiction longer than those with fewer resources.
However, with the right treatment, recovery can (and often does) happen. The addicted executive is often highly motivated to get well once they admit there’s a problem because they have so much to lose.1
Addiction Doesn’t Care How Much You Earn
You know the stereotype of an addict: disheveled, homeless, out of control, unemployed, and stealing from family and friends.
But the truth is, addiction can develop in any person at any socioeconomic level. It is a chronic, relapsing condition that can be influenced by a number of factors, such as genetics, a chaotic home life, and parental attitude toward drug use.3
It might seem like successful people such as CEOs have it all. They come across as confident and in control, which makes it hard to believe they could succumb to addiction. However, in a company of 5,000 employees, an estimated 15 of the 250 top executives may suffer from addiction to alcohol or other drugs. Other studies suggest 10% of top executives are drug- or alcohol-impaired.1
CEOs and executives may have the resources, such as wealth and flexible schedules, to effectively hide their addiction longer than others. But as the addiction progresses in severity, it becomes harder and harder for them to perform.
Traits That May Increase Substance Use Risk
Several key traits enable executives to rise to the top. Unfortunately, many of these traits can also drive and perpetuate an addiction.
Many CEOs are risk-takers and actively seek out novel experiences.4 They challenge prevailing beliefs and question the status quo. These qualities help them come up with new ideas for products and take chances on business ventures that others might deem too risky.
But many addicts also exhibit novelty-seeking behavior. One theory attempting to explain why some people seem to be more addiction-prone, according to David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is that certain people possess a genetic variant that leads to relatively suppressed dopamine signaling in the brain. As a result, these people are compelled to seek unusually high levels of stimulation (e.g., through thrill-seeking) to give them the same level of pleasure that others achieve through a lower, more typical level of stimulation.4
This urge to seek high stimulation, while extremely beneficial when put to use in endeavors like starting a business, may also compel high-achieving individuals to use drugs and alcohol compulsively.4
Unmet Childhood Needs
Another factor that may lead to addiction in executives is the type of family they grew up in. Constance Scharff, Ph.D., an addiction researcher at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center, believes that many high achievers experienced a stress or trauma early in life. “The vast majority didn’t have some sort of basic needs met as children, so they’re driven very, very hard to succeed. But the pain that goes with that is also what they’re self-medicating for.” 5
Another contributing factor that may affect numerous executives is having grown up in a family where love either was or seemed to the child to be conditional; it had to be earned with success—either academic, athletic, or something else. They learned that it was not who they were but what they did that counted.1
Some high-power executives may also have been driven to succeed by a turbulent home life in their childhood. They may have taken on the “hero” role in the family and pursued achievement to compensate for the damaging effects of substance abuse, violence, or other trauma on themselves and their families.1
However, while the dream of attaining success to fill an emotional hole created in childhood is common, once that success is achieved, it rarely brings the relief it promised. The void is still there, and some look to fill it with substance use.
Executives may also develop a persona to barricade themselves against feelings of insecurity. They appear upbeat, optimistic, and self-assured. But for some, adopting and maintaining this persona cuts them off from their genuine feelings and impulses.1
This carefully cultivated persona may help them achieve, but it may also get in the way of openness and intimacy with others.1 They may, in turn, use drugs and alcohol to deal with suppressed feelings of loneliness and alienation.
Many executives display perfectionist tendencies and set very high standards for themselves and others. They tend to hold a laser focus on the next task or project.1
Maintaining a tight grip on the details of business operations may afford them a sense of predictability and control. However, it is often a way to avoid uncomfortable emotions and put off dealing with other areas of their lives, such as personal relationships.1 They may turn to substances if they have not developed healthy ways to manage these emotions.
The Delusion of the High-Functioning Addict
Once an executive develops an addiction, certain factors may keep them from getting the help they really need. They may be slow to admit there’s a problem, especially if they’re still managing to show up and run their business, or the people around them may enable the addiction.
Since C-level executives hold powerful positions, those who work for them are unlikely to confront them about their addiction for fear of losing their jobs. The hesitancy to intervene may also extend to their loved ones who may deem it too early to say something if they’re still in a position of power. Their status serves to protect them from any kind of intervention.1
The people around them may even help sustain the addiction. Studies show that more than 75% of newly sober executives had secretaries and administrative assistants that helped them cover up their drinking or drug use. Furthermore, 60% of these executives say fellow executives protected them while they used.1
Financial resources may also hinder execs from getting help. Many CEOs and high-level executives are wealthy; they can often afford to spend lots of money on drugs and alcohol without draining their bank accounts. Whereas many addicts eventually run out of money and may turn to crime or prostitution to support their habit—which can lead to arrests and a realization that they have hit “rock bottom”—CEOs can continue to spend thousands of dollars a month for long periods of time.1
What’s more, in corporate culture, it’s common for C-level executives to drink with clients and other partners as part of lunches or meetings. That kind of behavior may even benefit them. Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, developed a reputation as a partier and drinker that actually seemed to enhance his standing with employees and shareholders.2 For those who drink as part of their business dealings, it can be hard for others to tell whether their alcohol use is normal or problematic.
Addiction will always take its toll when it is left untreated.Even in the throes of an addiction, a CEO may appear to function at a high level, especially if they have access to help from assistants, other employees, etc. However, over time, the executive may complete fewer and fewer tasks, even though they may continue to give off the appearance of functioning at a high level.1
Addiction will always take its toll when it is left untreated. Someone keeping it together on the outside may be able to delude themselves and others that they are fine, but problematic patterns of drug abuse are often insidious in their development—the health and social problems continue to mount over time. Drug and alcohol addiction can lead to cancer, heart problems, lung problems, kidney disease, liver disease, gastrointestinal problems, mental health issues, and even death.6
Henry T. Nicholas III
Henry T. Nicholas III founded Broadcom, a company that makes chips for cell phones, video game consoles, and other electronics. The company became very successful, but Nicholas developed an alcohol and drug problem.4 An email he sent to his now ex-wife shows him admitting to alternating between meth and cocaine while negotiating a Broadcom acquisition. In 2003, he left Broadcom, stating his intent to rebuild his marriage. However, in 2006, his marriage ended, and in 2007, he checked himself into treatment in Malibu.7
A major problem with getting high-power individuals into treatment is that they don’t identify with the addict stereotype. This strengthens denial, especially in the case that they are continuing to get a large volume of work done.
Dr. Scott Stacy, director of psychological services at the Professional Renewal Center, said one CEO told him, “I only have a substance abuse problem if I end up living in a cardboard box and eating out of dumpsters.”2
Many also assume that as strong leaders, they have to be in control at all times. Stacy explains that, “If the CEO’s own life becomes unmanageable, the anxiety that goes along with admitting that can be very overwhelming. Some will do anything they can to avoid it.”2 Any attempt to get a CEO into treatment, therefore, must be done thoughtfully and with preparation.
Approaching an Executive About Treatment
Some executives seek treatment on their own. Constance Scharff of Cliffside Malibu says, “They come to us because their home life is falling apart because of their addiction. They usually have enough assistants that they can continue to achieve at work.” 2 But many avoid treatment for as long as possible and may require an intervention to see clearly that they need treatment.
Some tips for approaching a CEO who has an addiction include the following:
- Consider an interventionist. An intervention is a planned event at which a group of people confront a person about their addiction and ask them to seek help. Interventionists are trained to talk to individuals suffering from addiction and help them break through their denial and accept that they need treatment. An intervention can be more effective if it includes colleagues the CEO respects, family members, and a board representative who can fire the CEO if they refuse treatment.2
- Have a one-on-one conversation. Interventions aren’t the only way to approach an addict. Another route is to have a close friend or a colleague speak to the CEO privately and advise them to get help. 2
- Be ready with evidence. A CEO is more likely to seek treatment if the person confronting them about the addiction can point to certain incidents, such as when the CEO slurred their speech in a meeting. 2
- Point to performance. If you’re in a position to do so, document a drop in the person’s professional performance and tell them there will be consequences if they don’t improve.
Luxury and Executive Rehabs
Executives aren’t unique in that, like most people, they have a hard time quitting without professional help.
Red McCombs, a co-founder of Clear Channel Communications and former owner of several professional sports teams, realized after 25 years of drinking that he had to quit. “Once you realize you’re hooked on a chemical, you have to find a way to get off of it because it’s so depressing that it’s hard to live with it unless you stay high.”2
People who have a high degree of professional responsibility may use their business duties and feelings of obligation to be there for their teams to justify not seeking treatment. An executive rehab program can remove this barrier. These programs are designed to help people who cannot afford to take time away from their businesses and who desire a high degree of privacy. They offer amenities tailored to CEOs and other executives, including workspaces, internet access, phone privileges, and conference rooms.
Luxury rehabs provide another alluring option for executives reluctant to seek treatment. These programs not only provide a high degree of personal privacy but also offer amenities to make the stay as comfortable and luxurious as possible, frequently providing options such as spa treatments, massages, tennis, horseback riding, gyms, and chef-prepared meals. Executive programs will often feature similar luxury options.
Both executive and luxury programs incorporate individual and group therapy for addiction treatment. The staff-to-client ratios are usually better than at other programs, which means people at these programs may receive more individual attention. Many programs also incorporate 12-step meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as part of their treatment.
Before a person embarks on a course of long-term recovery, they will often need to detox so that they can enter their chosen treatment program with a clear head and a healthy body. The detox process allows the body to clear the toxic influence of any remaining substances. Medical detox programs will offer the security of knowing that any medical emergencies will be handled immediately, even if it requires the administration of medication or other medical intervention to alleviate suffering. The time frame for detox can vary based on the specific substance(s) being abused (e.g., alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines) and the duration of abuse of those substance(s).
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. Anyone from any background can be affected, and anyone suffering can benefit from treatment. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, it’s never too late to ask for help.
- O’Connell, D., Carruth, B., and Bevvino, D. (2012). Managing Your Recovery from Addiction: A Guide for Executives, Senior Managers, and Other Professionals. New York: The Haworth Press.
- Prince, C.J. (2002). CEOs Anonymous. Chief Executive.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.
- Linden, D. (2011). Addictive Personality? You Might be a Leader. The New York Times.
- Walton, A. (2013). Why The Brains of High-Powered People May Be More Prone To Addiction. Forbes.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). Health Consequences of Drug Misuse.
- Forbes. (2009). The Little Black Book of Billionaire Secrets Broadcom’s Nicholas After The Fall. Forbes.