Next Stages in Leadership
How Great Leaders Make Great Comebacks
Observations from Jeff Sonnenfeld, Yale University
professor and leadership expert
Jeff Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean for executive programs and the Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at Yale University's School of Management. He also is founder and president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute and is the author of several leadership books. He recently co-authored Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters.
What do former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, banking industry leader Jamie Dimon and homemaking expert Martha Stewart have in common?
All achieved great success, faced potentially crushing failures, and rebounded. But more significantly, according to leadership expert Jeff Sonnenfeld, they share one characteristic that makes such comebacks possible: resilience.
In today's world of always-on media, leaders who encounter major setbacks face not only the standard struggles of trying to rebuild a career, but they must do so under great public scrutiny. This is where a true test of leadership – and the ability to manage public perceptions – comes in.
Most high-profile figures share common traits that may include rare skills, stature, wealth, connections and even luck. But none of those things or their combination automatically equals resilience. Sonnenfeld notes that leadership in adverse circumstances entails making conscious choices rather than simply riding the wave of predestination.
Carter lost his bid for re-election in 1980, but he then went on to author several best-selling books and has become renowned for his national and international humanitarian work. Jamie Dimon lost his job as president of Citigroup, but he didn't simply take the first big job offer that came along; he picked Bank One Corp. and led it into a merger with banking giant JPMorgan Chase, where he now sits as chairman and CEO. Martha Stewart served five months in prison for a felony charge related to an insider-trading scandal; since her release in 2005, she has expanded her line of housewares, returned to daytime television and continued to be a dominant voice in cooking, gardening and homemaking – defying commentators who predicted the end of her homemaking empire.
Carter, Dimon and Stewart each made conscious choices that aided their rebounds and showed a great ability to manage their public images.
Five Keys to Resilience
Here is how Sonnenfeld described five components of resilience that underlie the choices such leaders make:
1. Fight, not flight. When you look at recent media frenzies around HP's issue with pretexting, you see an example of a company that was afraid to embrace critics. They were embarrassed and they didn't master the facts, so they weren't prepared to reframe the situation. Often, the advice that embattled companies receive is “Don't engage.” But fight, not flight, is the answer.
2. Recruiting others into battle. When Bernie Marcus was fired as head of Handy Dan Home Improvement Centers, he took the president and the CFO, who also had been let go, and together they started a whole new business – The Home Depot. That demonstrates using networks effectively but also shows a moral responsibility for those who take the shrapnel with you.
3. Rebuilding heroic stature. Heroic statures have to do with rebuilding a reputation – impression management. It's not personal hardiness. It has to do with how the outside world sees you. If you do something wrong, be contrite. Don't do a celebrity rehab turn and say, “If I offended....” You've already lost the battle if you're qualifying it with the “if” word. If it's genuine contrition, show how you're going to atone for your action. If you did nothing wrong, scream it from the mountaintop, originally. Don't miss the press cycle.
4. Proving your mettle. Continue to do what once made you great. That's what Donald Trump did after going into bankruptcy. When you look at the whole west side of Manhattan, his name is blazing everywhere there again. He lost 100 percent equity there through financial difficulties, but using his name, his connections, his expertise and his comeback initiatives, Trump managed to work his way back into a significant state. He showed that he could still do what made him great.
5. Rediscovering your heroic mission. Understand your purpose. It's that existential reason for existing. Why do you still want to be a leader? What are you going to do that's different?