The most dangerous job in the world

first_imgWith the would-be presidents of the United States currently on the campaigntrail, the battle is on to be the top man in the White House. But the winnerwill follow in the footsteps of men dogged by poor health and bad luck. Andthere are many parallels to be drawn with the lives of our leaders of industryWhoever wins the race to be the next president of the US should be aware ofone uncomfortable statistic: his chances of spending two terms and eight yearsin the White House are slightly lower than his chances of dying in office orwithin five years of leaving office.Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University ofManchester Institute of Technology, is convinced even this bad news would notstop George W Bush and Al Gore. “They are the architects of their owndemise, they get addicted to their own biochemistry, the adrenaline, which iswhy so many of them find it so hard afterwards when they have to stop.”The plight of presidential wannabes seems a little remote from the day-to-dayconcerns of HR and personnel managers in industry but any study of the 41 men –and they have all been men – to occupy the White House since 1789 suggeststhere are real parallels with the lives, careers and performance of leaders inindustry. For all the rhetoric about work-life balance, the reality – drivenespecially by the Internet – is that, increasingly, top executives are movingtowards the kind of 24 hours a day, seven days a week workstyle which hasendangered the health of so many presidents. The dangers posed by the lifestyle which most presidents lead are, as ProfCooper says, not dissimilar to those facing many chief executives and there isa growing body of evidence that leaders, be they chairmen of companies orpresidents of the US, have similar personalities and life stories, ofteninvolving a severe trauma in childhood.Under scrutinyThe medical and psychological dangers inherent in the office of president ofthe US have a lot to do with the fact that they are, on average, 55 years oldwhen they take office. In other words, at an age when ordinary mortals arebeing advised by their GP to take things easy, these men begin to lead the mostpowerful nation on earth.It is a job for which there is no recognised training, where your behaviouris, as Prof Cooper says, “under scrutiny 24 hours a day by the press, thepublic and your staff” and where every day heralds a new crisis, real ormedia-made, which must be dealt with. This psychological stress weakens thebody’s immune system making it 22 per cent more likely that you will pick up aviral infection.”To do the things you have to do to become president you have to bevery robust”, says occupational physician Jennifer Lisle, “but thelifestyle imposed by the job brings with it a plethora of possible dangers.Often, leaders are people who can cope without 12 hours of sleep every nightbut that, in itself, can be very damaging and you build up a kind of sleep debtwhere your body can never regenerate itself. And the adrenaline which keeps yougoing releases a battery of hormones into the system – it is almost like anathlete running a race but not having the time to wind down after they havewon. Often, this kind of stress leads people to rely on other props likealcohol or cigarettes, which will lead to further damage.”Astonishingly, only four presidents have credibly been accused of sufferingfrom alcohol abuse, of which Richard Nixon is the most recent. Franklin Pierce,a one-term president elected in 1852, was catapulted to the White House eventhough he had already been forced to quit the Senate because of his drinking.He resumed his old habits as president and nobody was greatly surprised when,in 1863, he died of cirrhosis of the liver.A more popular presidential prop has been extra-marital sex. There iscredible evidence that as many as one in three have committed adultery – andthe “sinners” include the father of the republic George Washington –and five have fathered illegitimate children. “Many of these people actually suffer from low self-esteem. I thinkthat’s true of Clinton, not because of anything he’s done but of what he had toput up with as a child, and they have a continuous demand for love andapprobation,” says Cooper. “You see the same tendency with some hard-workingchief executives who, although they spend so many hours in the office, stillneed closeness and may find it with someone other than their wife.”Accelerated ageingWhatever strategies have been used, there is evidence aplenty that mostpresidents suffer from what Lisle calls “an accelerated ageingprocess”. Even Dwight Eisenhower, who never read a memo longer than asingle page of A4 paper, had a heart attack in office while Woodrow Wilsonspent the last years of his presidency immobilised by stroke.Warren Harding, who has the dubious honour of being America’s most corruptpresident, died of a coronary thrombosis less than 1,000 days into hisadministration. He did not have an iron constitution, like his predecessorWoodrow Wilson, and suffered at least one nervous breakdown before reaching thepresidency.Harding is one of eight presidents to have died in office. Four of them wereassassinated – Abraham Lincoln in 1861, James Garfield in 1881, WilliamMcKinley in 1901 and John F Kennedy in 1963 – while William Harrison has thedouble distinction of giving the longest inaugural speech (8,441 words) and ofrunning the shortest lived presidential administration (he died of a chill amonth later).Of those who died soon after leaving office, James Polk (1845-1849) survivedhis presidency by only three months and Chester Arthur (1881-1885) succumbed tothe kidney disease in 1886 which had been diagnosed while he was in office.Lisle says, “Most doctors advise people who retire to do so gradually,to scale down their workload and find other interests, but there is no gradualway of going from president to non-president.” Jimmy Carter has publicly admitted his own post-presidency trauma whileRonald Reagan, who spent many afternoons of his second term in pyjamas playingwith his dogs, may be held to have followed Lisle’s advice.The good news for this year’s candidates is that presidents are livinglonger once they have left office. The bad news is that this may be becausethey are not spending as long in office. Only three out of 10 presidents havebeen re-elected to serve a second full-year term since 1945.The transition from centre stage to offstage is particularly painful becausethere is a mass of evidence to suggest that most presidents, like other chiefexecutives, belong to a particular personality type, often referred to as TypeA, which studies show are at much higher risk of heart disease than Type Bpeople. Psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain On The Couch (Arrow), says,”It’s often just a matter of upbringing which decides whether a person ofthis type ends up in jail or running a company or in the White House. Thesepeople score high for narcissism, their willingness to take risks and theirability to put different parts of their life into different boxes so that, forinstance, they would be untroubled by a lie or an affair with someone who mayonly be as old as their own children. They are often social loners who havegreat faith in their own ability to charm or manipulate other people to get outof any situation.”Prof Cooper does not go this far, saying that although many leaders inpolitics and business cannot publicly admit they have a conscience they aretroubled in private although, and this is what marks them out as leaders, theydeal with this and move on.Certainly Richard Nixon, described by Harry Truman as a “no good liarwho could lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and even if hefound himself telling the truth, he’d tell another lie just to keep his handin”, fits this profile.Naturally awkward, his need to ingratiate himself with an audience oftenwent to extraordinary lengths. After his father died in September 1952, hereturned from a week’s mourning to campaign in Buffalo, New York, where he wonthe crowd’s hearts by declaring, in a tear-filled finale, that Buffalo was hisfather’s favourite city in the world. This was odd in itself – his father had,after all, spent most of his life in smalltown California – but became evenodder when, at stops at Rochester and Itaca that same day, he repeated the sameclosing paragraph simply changing the name of the town.Nixon’s family was, in some ways, typical for that of a future president.His father would use the strap on him and his mother, as he saw it, rejectedhim in her concern for his two ill brothers, both of whom would die oftuberculosis. Both Clinton and Reagan had to cope with an alcoholic parent, in Clinton’scase the stepfather from whom he took his surname. One in four presidents had lost at least one parent before becoming anadult. Prof Cooper says, “This means they get introduced to reality a lotsooner than many of us and that they are driven to try and recreate the pastonly this time with them in control providing their own ending.”Even among presidents who had not suffered parental loss, there was noshortage of life-changing trauma. Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) was 20 when hismother and his wife died on the same day. Like one of his successors John FKennedy, Roosevelt had suffered a near-fatal childhood illness – in Teddy’scase asthma – and his distant relative Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) had tofight polio in his quest for the presidency.But few presidential wannabes can match the ill-luck of Martin van Buren(1837-1841) who, between the ages of 32 and 37, lost his mother, father, wife,one son and his job.Anyone who studies all the presidents’ kin is struck by the toll of deathand disaster. Nine lost a wife either before or during their period of office,more than half saw one of their children die in their own lifetime and in 17cases that child died before they reached the age of 10.Prof Cooper says you will find the same high incidence of parental loss orlife-changing trauma in the childhood of many business leaders, adding weightto the contention that leaders are born not made. His studies show anotherrecurring motif in the collective biographies – they are often born in asocially ambiguous background. As Reagan once said of his upbringing, “Weweren’t on the wrong side of the tracks but you could hear the train whistlewhere we were.” This even applies to Kennedy who, although the son of amulti-millionaire, was too shrewd not to realise how socially isolated hisfamily were in upper-class Boston.The road to the White House is a solitary one, with the successfulcandidates usually exhibiting powerful personal charm, the constitution of anox and a willingness to take risks which other people – career managers inOliver James’s terms – would never take. Risk-taking can veer intobrinkmanship, as when Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) addressed a hostile crowd witha pistol in his hand and invited critics not to waste words but just to takethe gun off him and shoot.Some historians, who call their approach psychohistory, argue that therecklessness many presidents have exhibited in their private lives also drivestheir public policies. This view, expressed in an essay with the tabloid titleThe Phallic Presidency, is not entirely shared by James but he says,”America particularly is obsessed with the image of the predatory, machomale. In Europe, you could say we are more comfortable with leaders who havefeminine characteristics.” Indeed, the John Wayne war hero card is still one of the most potent anycandidate can play – it worked for Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Eisenhowerand Reagan and has helped John McCain’s challenge to George W Bush.The question of character is becoming more central to each presidentialelection because, with the death of communism, the issues and politicaldivisions are not as clear as they used to be, cutting across the old clichésof Left and Right. The US has entered an age of what Phil Noble, editor of the web sitePolitics Online, calls “biography politics”. Gone are the days when apresident can insist, as Chester Arthur did in 1885, “I may be presidentof the US but my private life is my own damned business”. Instead, the candidates are selling their biographies to the electorate in apunishing, adrenaline-fuelled campaign designed to give them a flavour of themassive endurance test to come if they are successful. As Lisle says, “Intwo years’ time we’ll all be looking at pictures of him and saying, ‘Hasn’t heaged?’”By Paul SimpsonA psychological and physical health check on five presidentsAbraham LincolnPeriod in office 1861-1865• Lincoln’s persistent melancholy – some have alleged he suffered from manicdepression – has its roots in a childhood which would have left less robustsouls with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder. When he was three hisonly brother died, when he was nine he is said to have helped make the coffinfor his mother to be buried in, when he was 17 a close friend went mad and whenhe was 19 his sister died. His first love died of cholera when he was 26, oneson, Eddie, died aged three and another, Willie, died of cholera when he was12. As if all that were not enough, the stress of presidency and war deprivedhim of sleep for weeks on end. Although he was tall and thin when he enteredoffice, he had lost over 20lb by the time John Wilkes Booth shot him.Woodrow WilsonPeriod in office 1913-1921• Wilson has the rare distinction of being the only president to bepsychoanalysed by Sigmund Freud. The founder of psychoanalysis decided the keyto Wilson’s personality was his fear of his own powerful sex drive. Twicemarried, and once involved in a long-term adulterous relationship, Wilson had anervous breakdown in 1894, one physical symptom of which was paralysis of theright hand. Headaches, indigestion and depression plagued him intermittently throughouthis career until his presidency was wrecked by a stroke, the severity of whichwas concealed from the outside world so he could serve out his second term. Heleft office in 1921, his country having rejected his vision of a League ofNations, and died three years later.John F KennedyPeriod in office 1961-1963• While much has been made of JFK’s womanising, the real secret of hispresidency was his health. He was a victim of Addison’s disease, and afteroperations in the 1950s to cure his bad back, had twice been given the lastrites by a priest. His brother Bobby said of him, “At least one half ofthe days he spent on this earth were ones of intense physical pain.” Hewas a genuine war hero who lost a brother and sister in the war and had to copewith the “loss” of another sister who had a lobotomy. One of hisfavourite poems was I Have A Rendezvous With Death, much on his mind before hisfatal trip to Dallas, and he was probably convinced it was his destiny to dieyoung.Lyndon JohnsonPeriod in office 1963-1968• LBJ once boasted, “I have had more women by accident than Kennedy hadon purpose.” He liked to hold meetings with White House staff while he wason the toilet – and with the toilet door open. His presidency soon got boggeddown in the mire of the Vietnam War, opposition to which among his own party,the Democrats, forced him not to seek another term in 1968. Towards the end ofhis administration, he was haunted by a recurring dream. “Every night whenI fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in a wide open space and Icould hear the voices of thousands of people shouting ‘Coward! Weakling!’”he told a biographer, adding that if he lost Vietnam he would be condemned as a”man without a spine”.Richard NixonPeriod in office 1968-1974• Like JFK, Nixon lost two siblings in childhood and felt estranged from hismother. According to his psychiatrist, Arnold Hutschnecker, whom Nixon visitedbetween 1952 and 1968, the president “did have a problem standing up topressure”. After losing a 1962 election for governor of California, Nixontold the press, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” Inoffice, Nixon often got drunk at weekends and, so US journalist Seymour Hershalleges, once called up Henry Kissinger demanding that North Vietnam be nuked.As impeachment neared, he was seen talking to the portraits of formerpresidents in the White House. After his resignation, he rehabilitated himselfas an elder statesman and died in 1994. Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. The most dangerous job in the worldOn 7 Mar 2000 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos.last_img read more