When we think about the most compelling leaders we know, we have a pretty clear picture of what they’re like. Addictive personality is generally not part of the picture.

At first sight, there might not be a lot in common between leaders and those who struggle with addiction. Leaders seem to have it all together and to make good choices (for the most part), unlike those who struggle with addiction. We generally look up to leaders. That’s what makes them leaders to begin with - the fact that we choose to follow them. 

But what few people know is that there is in fact a strong link between leadership and addictive personality. For one, both addictive personalities and leaders are compulsive risk-takers. The novelty-seeking behaviour is off the charts in both cases. Obsessive personality traits are also a big part of both addictive personalities and successful leaders. 

If you think about it, you will see many of these traits in the entrepreneurs you most admire. And if you’re honest with yourself, you might even notice them in yourself. Otherwise, how would you be able to build a business from scratch without taking risks, looking for ways to innovate and obsessing over what needs to be done for your company to succeed?! 

It’s not a negative thing though: the addictive personality traits found in leaders - obsessive, novelty-seeking, risk-taking personality traits - can be harnessed to make you a successful business owner. As David J. Linden says in his opinion piece in The New
York Times:

“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.” 

The closer we look, the more obvious it becomes that what we look up to in leaders are also signs of an addictive personality. 

So it’s not surprising to see that some of the most compelling leaders also battled addiction to one degree or another. 

What famous leaders were also addicts? 

Winston Churchill is said to have been an alcoholic. Although Churchill himself entertained this projected image of himself as alcohol dependant, some historians are not sure how much alcohol was an addiction or a prop to him - much like his cigars.  However, he heavily imbibed at meal times and famously said to the king of Saudi Arabia that his rule in life required “drinking before, during and after meals.”

While it might not qualify as an addiction per se, both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had experimented with LSD. Jobs famously said that LSD was one of the most important experiences of his life: 

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important—creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős famously drank abundant amounts of coffee. His motto was "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

But aside from his addiction to caffeine, he also took amphetamines for the last 20 years of his life. He would also consistently bury himself in mathematics for up to 19 hours a day. In one of Erdos’ anecdotes we can clearly see that for leaders, addiction is not about the substance itself, but about the thrill seeking behaviour. 

One of Erdos’ friends bet him $500 that he wouldn’t be able to stop taking amphetamines for a month. Erdos put his mind to it and won the bet - after which he promptly went back to amphetamine use.

Astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, probably the greatest science popularizer of our times, was also one of the greatest advocates of marijuana. He says that he took up smoking it as he had reached "a time when I was open to new experiences," hinting to the novelty-seeking behaviour. 

How to turn an addictive personality to your benefit 

It’s not hard to imagine how traits of an addictive personality can also be used for good. After all, you can be equally addicted to positive behaviours as you can be to negative ones.

In her essay “Turning an addictive personality into an asset,” Lorraine C. Ladish - a writer who has also battled bulimia and compulsion - writes:

“Once the addiction is out of the way, we are left with a lot of time and mental, emotional and physical energy. If instead of obsessing about and using drugs, food, exercise, gambling or any other substance or behavior, you obsess about writing, getting a college degree or establishing your own business, just imagine the possibilities!”

If you have found yourself displaying novelty-seeking behaviour, compulsive risk-taking and obsessive personality traits, know that they can all be turned into positives for your startup or small business.

Because of these traits, you can be finding solutions where nobody is looking for them. You are able to go the distance because you obsess over where you want to take your business and don't stop until you get there. You are always looking for ways to innovate, to do things better and differently, because that's what gets your wheels turning. 

Have you ever turned a "negative" behaviour trait into a positive for your business? Share your stories with us in the comments below!