A phoenix from the flames

3 July 2007 Andrew Ward

For some leaders, life's adversity can turn hard-earned assets into monumental barriers to recovery. Leaders can enjoy such resources as great popular recognition, vast networks of supporters and gushing pools of finances, but as Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward explain, celebrity, popularity and wealth do not insulate them from fate.

There is no cruise control for leaders to coast on the momentum of recent triumphs. Today's evidence of good fortune could evaporate with tomorrow's events. As Frank Sinatra reminds us in his ballad 'That's Life', one moment we can be on top of the world, and the next, trodden underfoot.

Prominent leaders and public figures may become targets as many people enjoy seeing those who have been held on a pedestal get knocked down. Just ask Martha Stewart, should you need convincing about the power of Schadenfreude or the delight in the humiliation of those we envy.


This point is highlighted for us time and time again in the headlines. Whether it is movie or media stars, artists, politicians, business leaders or even academics, there is a fascination with those who fall from grace, who get knocked off their pedestals either through their own slip-ups or by external overthrow.

For many, the derailment of a career of high accomplishment compounds adversity because their path to date has been so all consuming that so much else was sacrificed in its pursuit. Private dreams became public possessions, which were cavalierly tossed away by an unappreciative, fickle society.

F Scott Fitzgerald's famous admonition that there are no second acts in American lives casts an especially dark shadow over the derailed careers of leaders and those focused on creative expression.

Some do manage to recover with their careers more ablaze than ever, while others fade out into obscurity. Consider the resilience of John Irving, Mike Nichols, Robert Altman, Carlos Santana and John Travolta against the retreats of Kurt Vonnegut, JD Salinger, Alan Jay Lerner, Judy Garland and Orson Welles. Some were energised by their losses, while others were forever haunted by the spectre of their own early careers.


So what distinguishes those who stare down setback, determined to rebuild, and those who stare despondently into a void, never able to recapture that spark that ignited the flames of former glory?

On 10 June 2004, just days after Coca-Cola CEO Doug Daft was succeeded by Neville Isdell, Isdell announced the exit of Coca-Cola president Steven Heyer with the simple statement: "In discussions over the past week, Steve and I have looked at how he could best realise his personal goals given my election as chairman and CEO of this company… We agreed that Steve could best realise his aspirations by pursuing opportunities outside of the company."

Heyer, at age 51, was a shining star among US business leaders. He had already served as managing director of consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, president of J Walter Thompson, and president of Turner Broadcasting, in addition to his three years as president of Coca-Cola.

"Leaders should be measured by how they respond when fate deflates the joys of
hard-earned triumphs."

He was disappointed by the decision, feeling that his contributions and experience had been undervalued in the blur of Coca-Cola board politics. Just four months later, however, Heyer rebounded, taking over the reins of one of the world's largest hotel chains as CEO of Starwood Hotels, whose holdings include the St Regis, Sheraton, Westin and W hotels.

Former president Jimmy Carter challenged a group of CEOs at a conference to consider how they would recover if the American public had fired them. Despite failing to be re-elected, Carter continued tirelessly in his humanitarian, public health and diplomacy missions, heavily promoting democratic reform around the world, and has become revered by virtually all as the United States' greatest 'former' president and eventually recognised as a Nobel Laureate for Peace.

Leaders should not be measured by how they bask in the gratification of their accomplishments. Rather, they should be measured by how they respond when fate deflates the joys of hard-earned triumphs. How well do they pick themselves up and get back in the race?


This quality of resilience is critical in the lives of creative figures such as leaders and artists. The rise, the fall and the recovery of both leaders and artists face common stages. Back in the 1930s, Otto Rank was one of the first to link these extraordinary contributors. He suggested that their accomplishments were the consequence of a shared, superhuman urge to create, fuelled by a heightened quest for immortality.

Artists and leaders were similarly considered in Howard Gardner's book Extraordinary Minds. He proposed a set of traits shared by 'influencers' – those truly great historic figures across professions.

After studying such creative figures as Wolfgang Mozart, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud and Mahatma Gandhi, Gardner concluded that rather than raw intellect, lucky circumstances or even indefatigable energies, these figures possessed powerful skills:

  • Candid self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses
  • Keen situational analysis
  • The capacity to reframe past setbacks into future successes

A defeat merely energised them to rejoin the fray with greater ardour. It is not the proportion of their losses that differentiates these influencers from the rest of us, but how they construed their losses.


It is wrong to consider adversity a diversion off one's path toward greatness. The subsequent resilience from calamities has been revealed as vital to the character formation and differentiation of heroic figures.

"For some, a defeat merely energises them to rejoin the fray with greater ardour."

Anthropologist Joseph Campbell studied, across cultures and eras, religious and folk heroes such as Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, Cuchulain, Odysseus, Aeneas and the Aztecs' Tezcatlipoca, and discerned a universal 'monomyth' of the life stages of these heroes.

One stage involved a call to greatness, which led to a separation from one's past to realise superhuman talent. This was followed by a series of continual trials and ultimately profound setbacks that were met with eventual triumph and reintegration back into society.

The apparent losses were reconstructed into assets. These visionary leaders were able to inspire others to join them though their own sagas of redemption. They gained the confidence for transformational leadership, in part, through their stunning transcendence over life's adversity.

Edited extract from Firing Back, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward, Harvard Business School Press, 2007.