Co-authored by Andrew Ward, Sonnenfeld's book, which will be published by Harvard Business School Press in February, recounts the career setbacks and revivals of many high-profile leaders. The book offers a framework for rebuilding your career in the face of a catastrophe. Sonnenfeld spoke with Management Editor Jena McGregor. Here are edited excerpts:
Your book is contrarian in that a lot of people who have a career disaster are counseled to stay quiet and move on with their lives, not to fight back. Is that not good advice?
We tend to blame the victim. We're counseled to move on, sweep it under the carpet, tomorrow's another day, take your lumps.
That's just bad advice. Those lumps are taken forever. You shouldn't suffer an injury if you're innocent or if it's preventable. On top of that, some injuries are not recoverable. They can do permanent lasting damage, and you want to get it corrected.
What are the steps people should take in firing back after a career disaster?
First and foremost, engage. Don't go on vacation. Fight, not flight. Too many times, people have gone off to the ski slopes to collect their thoughts. You lose the press cycle. You lose the chance to correct any inaccuracies. The window of opportunity can pass you.
Secondly, it's critical to get the accurate message out. What is the truth and how do you prove it? You want to not only engage but give a convincing account for what happened. Martha Stewart did that very well, or as well as she could.
Third, you want to recruit others into battle because you can benefit from the reflected stature of those who believe in you and have delved into the situation but aren't your personal pals. They can bring even more independence and more credibility as you recruit those larger circles into your campaign for recovery.
At some point you're going to have to get back to work.
Yes, you want to prove you can still do whatever made you great, that you're not damaged goods, and that you're not completely consumed by the injustice. Some people may believe that you're right, that this is an awful thing that happened, but [still think] you can no longer perform at your best because this has hurt your ability to do your job. You have to prove that's not the case.
Who has done this particularly well?
[J. P. Morgan Chase Chairman and CEO] Jamie Dimon. He's reaching a greatness he may not have been able to reach if he had been Sandy Weill's successor [at Citigroup]. He's considered the nation's premier banker of his generation, and this was a guy who was fired [by Weill], who was out of work for a little while.
I talked to him during that period, and he told me he was deluged with opportunities, but that he wanted to wait for the right one. He wanted to prove what he could do and not just fall victim to a rebound effect.
Why don't more executives admit to being motivated by a desire for payback?
We don't like to admit how much revenge fuels us. The public statement is the best revenge is living well, but you know what? We secretly want to make sure the other party knows we're living well. There's more to it.
Often, you just scratch the surface of these guys and it takes only a second question, and they come pouring out to tell you about the righteous sense of injustice, and how that anger helped fuel them. They want to prove their mettle and demonstrate not just what they can still do, but what that perceived villain [missed].
In our culture you don't want to look small. You don't want to look like you were vulnerable or that you care about what people think. Part of the CEO position is the heroic aura. You want to want to create a larger-than-life persona, a persona of onwards and upwards, where life is a spiral of successes.
To get other people to believe in you, you want them to think you're not damaged goods. But of course that heroic aura, that image that you're above life's adversity, is not the reality.
Revenge is usually defined as wanting to harm someone else because of a perceived injustice. Aren't you really talking about redemption?
We hold the illusion that if the other person is as venomous as we think, their knowledge of our success is psychologically damaging to them. We see them as wounded by knowing that their efforts to bring somebody down cost them dearly—they didn't succeed. You can still feel a sense of retributive justice by your own recovery.