Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ability to Transcend Life's Adversity

FIRING BACK. By: Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey A., Ward, Andrew J.,
Harvard Business Review,
Jan 2007, Vol. 85, Issue 1

In every culture, the ability to transcend life's adversity is an essential feature of becoming a great leader.

In his influential 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, anthropologist Joseph Campbell showed us that the various stories of great leaders around the world, in every culture and every era, are all essentially the same story -- the "hero myth." This myth is embodied in the life stages of such universal archetypes as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Aeneas, Odysseus, and the Aztecs' Tezcatlipoca. Transformational leaders follow a path that entails a call to greatness, early successes (involving tough choices), ongoing trials, profound setbacks, and, ultimately, triumph as they reintegrate into society.

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's best to avoid direct and immediate confrontation.

The 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 public 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.


Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld ( is the senior associate dean for executive programs, the Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at the Yale School of Management, and the president of the Executive Leadership Institute at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Andrew J. Ward ( is an assistant professor of management at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. This article is drawn from their book of the same title, forthcoming from Harvard Business School Press in February 2007.

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