Alcoholic (no longer) anonymous

Jan 09 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Does it make any difference to your ability to be a leader (or an employee) if you are alcoholic? Would you vote for an alcoholic? Does an addiction make you unfit for office as prime-minister or as president? Should it disqualify you as CEO? Would you be happy if your manager was addicted to cocaine, marijuana, heroin, drugs, sex, or just making incredibly unhelpful changes just for the hell of it?

Ok, so the last one may have been included mainly for effect but it underlines the serious point of the distinction between a behaviour that may prevent a leader being effective and behaviour that is indisputably ineffective.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease which, unless the sufferer totally abstains, will unavoidably lead to a worsening of health and competence. If the alcoholic is only marginally competent to begin with this can really be a problem tongue in cheek but again true.

If the sufferer's performance at work is still within acceptable limits is it any business of the well business? Or of the electorate in the case of Charles Kennedy, leader until his resignation last weekend of Britain's Liberal Democrat party, whose drinking affliction brought about his demise.

If the sufferer's performance at work is still within acceptable limits is it any business of the business?

It is estimated that there are at least nine million alcoholics in the USA today. Luminaries such as Jack London, President Ulysses S. Grant, Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan Thomas, and even King Edward VIII (later duke of Windsor) were all alcoholics whose drinking, we are told, damaged their ability to do their work.

What can we expect the results of addiction to be? One writer, James Graham, in his "Secret History" on the subject argues that alcoholism causes egomania which is displayed in behaviours that include, "denial, lying, overachievement, ethical deterioration, false accusations, rejection of friends, grandiosity, aggressive sexual behaviour, multiple marriages, unreasonable resentments, and superficial emotions".

His examples includes Hitler's father and Stalin, described as the "supreme alcoholic", who Graham claims both illustrate what happens when addiction is not overcome - particularly, it seems, when the sufferers wield great power.

All this suggests that having a leader (with power) who is also alcoholic (encouraging egomania and poor decision making skills) is not such a good idea.

It is a matter of record that the present incumbent in the white house abused alcohol. George W claims that he decided to quit on his own and, unless there is drinking we don't know about, managed to do so successfully without assistance (although his wife, Laura, did threaten that, "it's me or the booze" on at least one occasion).

This story didn't stop Bush getting elected and the rumour that he had turned to drink again didn't stop him getting re-elected. It's tempting to discuss the possible links to, "denial, lying, and ethical deterioration", but it will be left to you to consider whether that is credible.

So it is clear that it is possible to be voted into office if you were once someone who abused alcohol (or even drugs), but what about if you currently have a problem?

Some employers are interested in testing for alcohol or drug abuse, influenced no doubt by studies that suggest how much money such abuse could be costing them. One study, published in 1999, put the cost to UK employers alone at 2 billion a year.

Research has found that, "absenteeism is two to three times higher for drug and alcohol users than for other employees, those employees with chemical dependence problems may claim three times as many sickness benefits and file five times as many workers' compensation claims; 20 to 25 per cent of accidents at work involve intoxicated people injuring themselves and innocent victims, and that on-the-job supplies of drugs and alcohol account for 15 to 30 per cent of all accidents at work."

So have you ever been tested? The higher up you are in the hierarchy the less likely it is that you will have been. Clearly leaders are unlikely to demand tests for themselves - besides which, they aren't operating heavy machinery so how could they possibly make damaging decisions while drunk?

But does the workplace itself have an impact on the likelihood of alcohol or drug abuse? Do some workplaces drive their workers to drink? Do workplaces cause deadly stress?

This certainly seems to be the case in Japan where "overwork" or "karoshi" killed as many 50,000 workers in 2001 (due to high blood pressure, heart disease or simply overloading the bodies of those affected).

Similarly, alcohol (a chemical brain depressant) tends to be abused by those who are seeking sweet oblivion, which in turn leads to depression, reduction in work effectiveness, performance anxiety and, inevitably, to more depression.

Put it this way, your life won't feel a lot better if you have lost your job because you are so bad at it because you were drinking away your brain cells.

So should Charles Kennedy have been forced to resign? No. He should have resigned three years ago and sorted out a personal problem before it reduced his effectiveness, became a political problem to his party and a public circus for him and his young family. But that's a hard decision to make when your preferred poison is reducing your ability to think clearly.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Winston Churchill was almost certainly alcohol dependent - a historian once said that he wasn't an alcoholic because 'no alcoholic could drink that much!'. Didn't he also say 'I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.'

God knows what would have happened to his political career if he had been around now. Who would you rather have as a leader in a time of crisis. Churchill or Blair. Or, God forbid, John Prescott!


Alexander the Great was also an alcoholic. Didn't stop him from conquering most of the then-known world.

Of course, it also killed him . . . .

Emma Bennett

Thank God that I caught Alcoholism,you see if I hadn`t I would still be living under a bridge or dead,it was there that I hit bottom,I didn`t know it at the time but when I believed that everything was finished..That was the begining {of my life without Alcohol} I was sick and tired of being sick and tired..AA didn`t open the gates of Heaven to let me in..It opened the gates of Hell to let me out and it`s completely free but the odds are that if you`re a member then you`ve paid more than enough and unfortuneately the joining ` fee ` is sometimes more than most can afford.. I have never been to a place where there is so much love and understanding,we don`t care who you are, if you have a desire to stop drinking { The only requirement for membership - and you decide } then you`ll be made welcome..If you miss it you`ll never know what you`ve missed..Unfortunately there is a principle which is a bar against all information.Which is proof against all arguements and cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--- That principle is contempt prior to investigation !! that principle bloody well nearly killed me,I was a practicing alcoholic addict for 30 yrs I haven`t had a drink or a drug since 07:05:2004 one day at a time..All I`m going to say is thank God { As I understand him }for AA and thank AA for God...Have a pleasant day unless you`ve got anything better to do and may your God go with you..Ian S A very gratefull Alcoholic !

Ian S A Brit in Holland

Inspired by your article (!) and the factoids of the message posters I dug up some facts of my own:

An alcoholic will earn approximately 18 percent less than will others with similar education levels and work histories but, weirdly, those who are tee-total will also earn 18 percent less than others... with the 'optimum' level of alcohol consumption being 2.4 drinks a day. I'm not saying that there isn't another explanation (like the benefits of being socially active to getting promoted) but it might just keep me drinking ;)

Anita Brookes Montreal

As a recovering alcholic of 19 years, I still have certain character defects that want to creep out. It's only through AA that I can control them, and then sometimes I fail. One of the main defects alcholics have is the desire to be in control. OMG! Need I say more?

Faye Miden

Britain, and I suspect many other countries, has a long record of successful leaders who have been either very heavy drinkers or alcoholics. These men, and occasionally women, have been leaders in political,military,religious business and industrial fields, there have been alcoholic Kings. This has been very good for the country but unfortunately sometimes bad for the alcoholic leaders. The British electorate are sophisticated to recognise when we have a good drunk and a bad one. Charles Kennedy was good for his party. What is bad for his party and the country is the sanctimonius prigs, mostly politicos, who have decreed that we the electorate cannot make up our own minds on leaders. We all knew he had a drink problem, we accepted him because he was far better than the sober alternatives.

Jeff Scotland



As a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years experience studying and treating alcohol problems I was dismayed by your erroneous characterization of persons with alcohol problems. Your article is based on false premises which, like so many lazy journalists before you, you have failed to investigate beyond talking to the standard 'experts'. These premises have to do with the so-called nature of 'alcoholism'. None of what you say is true. Alcohol problems are NOT even 'usually', much less inevitably, progressive (masses of research data show this), and total abstinence is NOT necessary for someone who suffers from alcohol dependence--the correct term for severe alcohol problems under boththe World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic systems--to completely abstain in order to 'recover'. In fact, research shows that most recoveries from even severe alcohol problems consist in moderating drinking to safe levels that have no negative impact on functioning. Get your facts straight before you stigmatize people who do not warrant such treatment!

My reading of Mr. Kennedy's problems are consistent with someone whose drinking interfered dramatically with his performance. Whether or not he should have resigned, though, should have nothing to do with whether or not he suffers from a putative 'disease' (another arbitrary designation, BTW), but whether or not he was performing responsibilities he undertook. To focus on his drining in the way you have stigmatizes everyone who has had a drinking problem, but overcame it to function without problems (the vast majority of such people do so, BTW).

Frederick Rotgers, PsyD, ABPP Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Philadelphia, PA

I understand the concerns about the dangers of 'erroneous characterisation' raised by the doctor however my column, if he re-reads it, raises questions rather than making assertions since I am self-evidently no expert on alcoholism. It then quotes those who claim to be such experts in a column (not a refereed journal article) that simply claims to discuss subjects that are of interest.

Is Graham right in his characterisations? I have no way of knowing for sure. He claims to base his views on 30 years of experience (like the doctors) and 20 years of research.

Are all alcoholics egomaniacs? Not likely (!) since we are led to believe 10% of the population has some kind of problem with alcohol abuse but the consensus seems to be that drinking to excess in an addictive pattern is hardly good for you.

I like Charles Kennedy, as it happens, but think that the issue of alcoholism and whether it does, or should, make any difference to voting is a reasonable discussion and one that has been held in private and public since the annoucement.

Oh... and in your opinion, are all journalists (I am a organisational behaviour researcher and strategist) lazy? Or is that a gross characterisation? And are you the kind of 'expert' I should refer to next time?

Max Mckeown

Are you the same Frederick Rotgers as the one discussed by your erstwhile colleague in the following link?

Don't want to jump to any conclusions... but the accusations in that link are certainly more interesting than that of being 'lazy'.

Max Mckeown

Since when, doctor, has there only been 'one' way of looking at 'alcoholism'? Your own work (based on interviews you have given) states that it should be treated as a disease. You additionally are associated with the 'moderation' school of thought for treatment which suggests there is no need for everyone to totally abstain but it's just one way of looking at it. You seem to be looking to promote your ideas by throwing your qualifications and insults around rather than admitting that the column is openly debating the issues regarding addiction and effectiveness in the work place rather than condemning anyone or getting behind one party line. Others who have responded seem to have realised this!

Patrick Renee Cardiff

It seems to me that the doctor is taking a defensive stance, which speaks volumes. Credentials are easy to hide behind. Having dealt with the family crisis of addiction and alcoholism over the last 5 years I was honestly shocked to read the comment suggesting the idea of 'moderation', coming from a doctor no less??? Sounds like classic denial to me. Why waste your breath? What I have learned is never argue with an alcoholic... it's a waste of your time and energy and they are master provokers and manipulators. They love to argue and win. They will suck the life right out of you if you let them. I've learned to take their lies with a grain of salt. I've learned to let their denial slide and pretty much ignore their provocative behavior in favor of a happier and healthier life for myself. Living with liars is only personally taxing if you let it be. However in terms of 'business'... and electorate??? Certainly when you can see someone on their way out, it's time to find someone who can replace them. But if they are a functioning and productive employee who is responsible and dependable and doing a good job... well would you fire them just because they were diagnosed with cancer? Of course not... but you would definitely expect there to be times down the road when they needed to take time to deal with their health, and eventually need to be replaced. That's just life. Disease is dis-ease. The hard thing about alcholosim is denial and therefore lying. Once diagnosed with cancer a patient doesn't usually deny they have it. They go about trying everything they can to fight it. Education about alcoholism as a disease needs to become mainstream. Then doctors who promote the dark age thinking that it's not a disease and can be 'controlled' would be more recognizable to the layman as his own denial. :)

Sandi Vancouver, Canada