CEOs show how cheating death can change your life

Micron Technology mu CEO Steve Appleton was 25 feet off the ground performing aerobatics when his stunt plane stalled and crashed near Boise in 2004.

Appleton survived.

So did Sun Microsystems JAVA CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who was a passenger aboard an Amtrak train in 1987 when it collided with a set of locomotives in Maryland at 108 mph, killing 16.

The list of executive flirtations with death goes on. Don Keough, the 82-year-old retired president of Coca-Cola ko, was 3 when he escaped a farmhouse near Sioux City, Iowa, that burned to the ground in the middle of the night. He remembers almost nothing, but says he has recurring dreams of crashing in a plane.

Film producer George Lucas was a deadbeat teen until he was nearly killed in a car crash about the time of his high school graduation in 1962.

Cheating death has no business cycle, but it's become a big part of the recent news cycle as Apple aapl CEO and pancreatic cancer survivor Steve Jobs stepped down for six months to take care of medical issues described as complex, a US Airways jet with 155 aboard ditched into the Hudson River without a fatality in January, and a Turkish airliner crashed less than a mile from the runway in Amsterdam in February with all but nine of the 135 aboard surviving.

Among the passengers on the US Airways jet, Flight 1549, were some fairly high-ranking business types, including a senior manager at NASCAR, an Oracle sales manager and the head of mutual fund retailing for ING Funds.

Time will tell if Amber Wells, Dave Sanderson, Joe Hart or others aboard Flight 1549 find their brush with death transforming. Jobs did. He delivered a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University a year after a tumor was discovered on his pancreas and, for a short time, he feared he had just months to live. He told Stanford graduates:

"Death is very likely the single-best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true."

Last June, management consultant Grant Thornton surveyed 250 CEOs of companies with revenue of $50 million or more. Twenty-two percent said they have had an experience when they believed they would die and, of those, 61% said it changed their long-term perspective on life or career. Forty-one percent said it made them more compassionate leaders; 16% said it made them more ambitious; 14% said it made them less ambitious.

Most CEOs interviewed by USA TODAY had not encountered a pure near-death experience, or NDE, which most experts say requires someone being revived from the brink. But those who believe they are in danger of dying have experienced what is known as a near, near-death experience. Like the passengers of Flight 1549, they may not have even been injured, but they feared enough for their lives that it may change them in profound ways and give them a heightened sense of purpose.

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