Does living through a disaster as a child make a CEO more willing to take risks? The answer is yes and no.
It all depends on the magnitude of the disaster, according to a study coauthored by Lundquist College assistant professor of finance Vineet Bhagwat.
Titled “What Doesn’t Kill You Will Only Make You More Risk-Loving: Early-Life Disasters and CEO Behavior,” Bhagwat’s study, written with Gennaro Bernile and P. Raghavendra Rau, detailed the effect of natural catastrophes on the risk-taking behavior of CEOs at companies in the S&P 1500.
Those who experienced relatively mild events—defined in the study as those in which property damage totaled less than $10,000 and no more than one person was killed—tend towards more daring business choices. Their companies have higher debt ratios and smaller cash holdings. They are also more likely to acquire other companies.
Steering a noticeably less risky course were those CEOs whose childhood experiences included disasters in which more than five people lost their lives and property damages exceeded a million dollars.
And what about those CEOs whose formative years were blissfully calamity free? Their behavior falls right in the middle of the risk spectrum. “They were our baseline group,” said Bhagwat.
Bloomberg Businessweek recently highlighted Bhagwat’s research in an article titled "The Most Daring CEOs Were Forged in Fire (and Flood, and Earthquake)." The article also references another Lundquist College faculty member’s investigation of brash business leaders—assistant professor of finance Stephen McKeon’s examination of the daredevil behavior of CEOs who fly small aircraft.