Leadership rebound: Comeback strategies

Among the tests of leadership, few are more challenging and more painful than recovering from a career catastrophe, whether it is caused by natural disaster, illness, misconduct, mistakes, or unjust conspiratorial overthrow. But real leaders throw in the towel; defeat galvanizes them to rejoin the fight with greater determination and vitality.

In a recent research, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward found out that 35 percent of ousted Chief Executives returned to an active executive role within two years of departure, but 43 percent effectively ended their careers. What prevents a deposed leader from coming back?

Leaders who cannot recover have a tendency to blame themselves and often tempted to dwell on the past rather than look to the future. They secretly hold themselves responsible for their career setback, whether they were or not, and get caught in a psychological quagmire of their own making, unable to move beyond the position they no longer hold.

Well-meaning colleagues, who may try to apportion blame in an attempt to make sense of the chaos surrounding the disaster, usually reinforce this dynamic. In every culture the ability to transcend life’s adversity is an essential feature of becoming a great leader.

From their twenty-two years of interviews with hundreds of fired Chief Executives and their study of leadership, Sonnenfeld and Ward are convinced that leaders can triumph over tragedy, provided they take conscious steps to do so.

For a start, such leaders must carefully decide how to fight back. Once this crucial decision has been taken, they must recruit others into battle. They must then take steps to recover their heroic status, in the process proving to themselves and others that they have the mettle necessary to rediscover their heroic mission.

According to the authors, few people exemplify this discovery journey better than President Jimmy Carter. After his 1980 re-election loss to Ronald Reagan, he was emotionally fatigued. He told the authors, “I returned to Plains, Georgia, completely exhausted, slept for almost 24 hours, and then woke to an altogether new, unwanted, and potentially empty life.”

Despite his pain and humiliation, President Carter did not retreat into anger or self-pity. He realized that his global prominence gave him a forum to fight to restore his influential role in world events.

Accordingly, he recruited others into battle by enlisting the support of his family, several members of his administration and others to build the Carter Center.

He proved his mettle by continuing to involve himself in international conflict and mediation demonstrating in the process that he was not a has-been.

He regained his heroic stature when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”

And he has rediscovered his heroic mission by using the Carter Center to continue his drive to advance human rights and alleviate needless suffering in the world.

Decide How to Fight Back: The first decision you will face in responding to a career disaster is the question of whether to confront the situation that brought you down – with an exhausting, expensive, and perhaps embarrassing battle – or to try to put it behind you as quickly as possible, in the hope that no one will notice or remember for long. In some cases, it is best to avoid direct and immediate confrontation.

The key determinant in the ‘fight-or-flight’ question is the damage (or potential damage) incurred to the leader’s reputation, the most important resource of all leaders. While leaders may have other resources and experience to rebound, it is their reputation that will make the difference between successful career recovery and failure.

Fights that will result only in an expensive victory are best avoided. Battles of pure revenge could lead to a situation when all parties lose. When, however, the allegations are not only sufficient to cause a catastrophic career setback but would also block a career comeback, then leaders need to fight back.

Recruit Others into Battle: Whether you fight or tactically retreat for a while, it is essential to engage others right from the start to join your battle to put your career back on track.

Friends and acquaintances play an instrumental role in providing support and advice in the process of recovery. Those who really care for you can help you gain perspective on the good and bad choices you have made. You are also more likely to make yourself vulnerable with those you trust. Without such vulnerability, you cannot hope to achieve the candid, self-critical perspective you will need to learn from your experience. Still, although family and friends can provide invaluable personal support, they may be less effective when it comes to practical career assistance. Research has shown that slight acquaintances are actually more helpful than close friends in steering you toward opportunities for new positions in other organizations.

Recover Your Heroic Status: It is not enough for you to recruit others to advance your career. To launch your comeback, you must actually do things to win back the support of the wider audience. To manage this you must regain what Sonnenfeld and Ward call your “heroic status.”

A great leader has a heroic persona that confers a ‘larger-than-life presence.’ You can achieve this status by developing a personal dream that you offer as a public possession. If your dream is accepted, you achieve renown. If for whatever reason your public vision is ultimately discarded, you suffer the loss of both your private dream and your public identity. After a career disaster, you can rebound only if you are able to rebuild your heroic stature – that is, the pubic reputation with which you were previously perceived. An intrinsic part of recovering this heroic status involves getting your story out. This calls for a public campaign to educate and inform.

Prove Your Mettle: Protecting your reputation by knowing how to fight unjust accusations and bringing others on board are both essential precursors to relaunching a career in the aftermath of catastrophe. Ultimately, however, you will recover fully only when you take the next role or start a new organization. When you show that you can still perform at a credible or superior level, others will begin to think of you as having the mettle to triumph over your career calamity.

Showing mettle is not easy. Fallen leaders face many barriers on the path to recovery, not least of which are doubts in their own ability to get back to the top. Yet leaders who rebound are unfailingly those who get over this doubt about their ability to do it again. Even when forced from familiar arenas into totally new fields, some leaders remain unafraid of trying new ventures. This capacity to bounce back from adversity – to prove your inner strength once more by overcoming your shattered confidence – is critical to earning lasting greatness.

Rediscover Your Heroic Mission: Most great leaders want to build a legacy that will last beyond their lifetime. This is not some earthshaking legacy but rather advancing society by building and leading an organization. Sonnenfeld and Ward this time call this the leader’s “heroic mission.” Most leaders often are deeply engaged in building lasting legacy before they suffer career setbacks. It is the loss of this mission that really raises a derailment to catastrophic proportions in the leader’s own mind, since it puts at risk a lifetime of achievement.

A single-minded, passionate pursuit of a heroic mission is what sets apart leaders like President Carter from the general population, and it is what attracts and motivates followers to join them. Finding a new mission to replace your lifelong purpose can be a great struggle, but one that is necessary if you are to recover.

In conclusion, Sonnenfeld and Ward believe that comeback is possible in all industries, though the challenges vary according to the leadership norms of each field’s culture. Therefore, recovery plans must be adapted to the cultures of different industries.

By Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)

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