In a society that demands success, how do fallen leaders — like homemaking guru Martha Stewart — rebuild their careers?
Yale School of Management professor and Associate Dean Jeff Sonnenfeld may have the answer.
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This is the essential question that Sonnenfeld discusses in his new book “Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters,” which came out on Feb. 1. With co-author Andrew Ward of the University of Georgia, Sonnenfeld offers advice for leaders of all kinds about how to move on after significant failure or “adversity” in their careers.
Sonnenfeld, whose expertise in leadership has made him perhaps SOM’s most visible figure in the national media, founded SOM’s Chief Executive Leadership Institute, which conducts research on leadership and hosts educational conferences for corporate executives. Sonnenfeld said he was inspired to write the book through his interactions with such industry leaders as Stewart and Donald Trump in Institute-sponsored workshops for CEOs.
“There’s a certain kind of intimacy these global titans will share,” he said, in references to the conferences he participated in with these leaders.
Another impetus for the book, Sonnenfeld said, was a two-page summary he wrote in a prior publication examining top corporate leaders, many of whom held a “folk-heroic” status within their companies. Reading literature on heroism by sociologist Joseph Campbell and psychologist Otto Rank, he said, helped him relate to the career cycles of leaders who achieve almost mythic stature in their firm but then suffer calamitous failure.
Sonnenfeld said failure remains a taboo subject in a “success-absorbed” society, something he wanted to remedy in “Firing Back.” The book is packed with case studies, statistical evidence and anecdotes of leaders as diverse as Stewart, Home Depot Founder Bernie Marcus and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
The book proposes specific methods of recuperation, emphasizing the proactive nature of recovering leadership rather than the avoidance or acceptance of hardship. Overall, Sonnenfeld and Ward propose five essential components of the recovery process: “Fight not Flight,” “Recruit Others into Battle,” “Rebuild Heroic Stature,” “Prove your Heroic Mettle,” and “Discover a New Heroic Mission.”
The book relies heavily on anecdotes from the corporate world as evidence. In one section, after relating the early career difficulties of billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg — now the mayor of New York City — the authors argue for aggressively re-establishing a positive life ethos.
“When a catastrophic setback occurs that forcibly separates them from that mission, perhaps the biggest challenge is to redefine their mission, and in so doing, essentially redefine their being,” Sonnenfeld and Ward write.
The book has already received positive reviews from publications like the Financial Times and the New York Times. Robert Sternberg ’72, dean of arts and sciences at Tufts University and former professor of psychology at Yale, who has read the book, said he is not surprised by the positive reaction. The book’s subject of recovering from obstacles lends itself to a much wider audience than traditional management literature, he said.
“I think it’s terrific,” he said. “I think it will have a great impact, and it’s not only for people in business.”
Although most reviews of “Firing Back” have been positive, Financial Times reviewer Morgan Witzel wrote that it overemphasized the notion of heroism in evaluating leaders.
“There is perhaps a little too much use of the word ‘heroic’ in this book, too much concentration on stature and greatness,” Witzel wrote.
While many of them haven’t read the book yet, Sonnenfeld’s students at SOM praised his writing acumen and immense knowledge in the field of leadership. Spencer Hutchins MBA ’07, who is currently taking Sonnenfeld’s class “Strategic Leadership Across Sectors,” said the course’s required reading includes some of the professor’s earlier works, which Hutchins appreciates for their straightforward yet cerebral approach.
“I think he has a great way of writing in English but not dumbing down the material,” Hutchins said.
Sonnenfeld is the author of eight previous books, including “The Hero’s Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire.”