Is A CEO Just Like An Addict?

Last Updated Jul 26, 2011 12:38 PM EDT

In a thought provoking piece in the New York Times, neuroscientist David J. Linden from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine argues successful CEOs have more in common with addicts than most people think. In the process, he shines some light on why the two sometimes go hand in hand.

Like drug addicts, he contends, successful leaders are compulsive risk-takers with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior.

Our brain's dopamine-pleasure-seeking system can be activated by drugs or it can be activated by unpredictable rewards, writes Linden, the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good. He writes,

"While a roulette wheel is spinning or horses are on the track, we get a pleasure buzz even if we don't get a payout in the end. Uncertainty itself can be rewarding -- clearly a useful attribute for high-risk, high-reward business ventures."
Linden goes on to explain that people become addicts not because they get more pleasure out of dopamine-triggering substances or experiences, but because their dopamine rush is actually blunted compared to others, causing them to seek out stronger and stronger stimuli. Proof of this theory comes from genetic studies that have identified genes associated with addiction. Genes that suppress dopamine signals are shown to increase pleasure and novelty seeking behavior, and are associated with an increased risk of addiction.

Addictive Personalities: Helpful for the Bottom Line?
He suggests that there may be more addiction lurking in the private lives of CEOs than people realize, and that might not be a bad thing--for the company that is.

The risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace. For many leaders, it's not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also confer on them behavioral traits that serve them well.


So if you're looking for the next great CEO, he says, look for "someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of success more than others -- but likes it less." Though looking for an addict to work for you may be risk-seeking behavior in and of itself.
What do you think? Do you think there is a relationship between CEOs and addictive behavior, and if so, does it help the company?

Related:

Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter. Photo courtesy of Flickr user stoneflower
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.