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.

Alfred West, CEO of SEI Investments seic, said he got back some inaccurate tests on his heart 16 years ago and for several days believed he had but a short time to live. Likewise, Greg Babe, CEO of Bayer USA, told USA TODAY that he went through nine months of medical testing for a heart condition. It turned out to be less serious than first feared, but it was a stressful time, and "all of my employees know that I have a closely held philosophy that balance in life is very important," Babe says. "That was an outcome of the experience."

Perry Massie, chairman of Outdoor Channel, scuba dives and has carried a Smith & Wesson Magnum to ward off grizzlies in Alaska. But his close call came from an allergic reaction to eating shellfish. Joshua Gentine, president of Cholive gourmet chocolate, was hiking Mount Kilimanjaro in 2004 when he developed such a serious altitude sickness he had to be rushed off the mountain.

"I did not walk off that mountain with an epiphany, but it certainly put into focus the balance between adventure (risk) and wisdom," Gentine wrote in an e-mail.

Out of body experiences

People who recount pure NDEs sometimes say they are accompanied by out-of-body experiences and trips toward a light. NDEs are described as both pleasurable and not. A Gallup Poll found that about 8 million Americans have had a near-death experience. That number is surely on the rise, because victims of cardiac arrest — which kills 1,000 people a day in the USA, according to Cardiac Science — are increasingly being saved with automated external defibrillators.

There are CEOs who have had pure near-death experiences, but people of success are less likely to talk about them openly for fear of being "branded as crazy" and lumped with those who say they have been abducted by UFOs, says Jody Long, webmaster of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation.

Of the 250 CEOs surveyed by Grant Thornton, 3% said they have been brought back to life after having died. Another 3% said they did not want to respond to the question.

Ned Dougherty, once a millionaire real estate broker who owned popular discos in New York and Florida, went into cardiac arrest two different times in 1984 but did not go fully public with his near death experiences until 2001 in his book Fast Lane to Heaven. He says he met deceased loved ones and was enveloped by the light of God. A casual drug user and an alcoholic who always had his first drink before noon, Dougherty said he was suddenly cured of addiction.

Dougherty says those who ditched into the Hudson River have had a spiritual experience that they will have to come to terms with over time. He says he has lost all interest in business and money. Where he once was angry at God for "ruining the party," he now considers his two trips into death a blessing. Like most who have NDEs, he says he no longer fears death.

Not every CEO who has been frightened by the prospect of death has found it to be life changing. Lloyd's of London CEO Richard Ward said he was caught in a rip current 200 yards offshore when he was in his 20s. "The friend I was with ... thought that was it," and for an instant Ward feared for his life. "I was fortunately a strong swimmer and able to make it. It was not life-defining."

Chris Kearney, CEO of Fortune 500 manufacturing company SPX spx, says he had a close call in college while riding with a friend in his new car. The friend failed to round a curve, and the car went airborne before landing upright in the mud of a cow pasture.

"We looked at each other and started laughing," Kearney says. "A farmer came down with a flashlight to see if his cows were OK."

Learning from a brush with death

"Near-death experiences give you balance. You become more worldly. Your ideas become bigger," says Jason Calacanis, co-founder of Weblogs, sold to AOL in 2005. Now 38, Calacanis says he is wealthy enough to never need to work, but he says he remained a workaholic after a ski vacation four years ago when the commercial prop plane he was in was so blown by 58 mph winds that it turned completely sideways just before it was about to land at the Telluride, Colo., airport. The pilot powered up the shaking plane just in time and diverted to Durango.

"I thought there was a pretty good chance we were not going to make it," says Calacanis, who re-evaluated his life and reached the conclusion that building Internet companies was what he loved to do. He is now CEO of Mahalo, which he describes as a site that is part search engine, part Wikipedia, part Google.

Calacanis travels 50 to 70 times a year, but where he once went back and forth from Europe without checking into a hotel, he now often takes his wife and spends several days in places like Sydney and Sundance, Utah, to engage in "epic" experiences such as climbing the Sydney bridge or screening movies at the film festival.

Sun Microsystems CEO Schwartz, who did not respond to an interview request, has often said that the 1987 train accident nearly killed him and said in a 2007 interview with the website Scobleizer that it was life changing. Life becomes "shinier," and time more precious, Schwartz said. More recently, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said he quit hoarding his wine collection and drank it over time.

"You should plan for the long haul, but there is a big difference in doing that and making perpetual sacrifices," Schwartz told Scobleizer.

Apple has frustrated shareholders with the lack of information about Jobs' health. It says Jobs, 54, will return in June.

"No one wants to die," Jobs said in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. "Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."