It seems that not a day goes by when we are not reading about an executive’s fall from grace. In the entertainment business, it is so common as to be nearly a rite of passage. But a passage to where? For some, the answer is not always a road to nowhere. In fact, oblivion is not necessarily a final destination; it can be a station one passes through on the way back to triumph.Martha Stewart committed a crime, was convicted, served time, was released and got a television show. While she was away, her firm’s stock skyrocketed in value, earning her hundreds of millions of dollars. In an amazing display of media ju-jitsu, Stewart has convinced much of her public that she has undergone a personality makeover courtesy of her experience behind bars. She has fortified her resume by adding the unusual characteristic of “humility.” This humanizing element has made her more desirable to actual or would-be fans and network sponsors. The journey from stardom to fall to banishment to comeback to redemption (and the possibility of beginning the cycle anew) shares a common thread: Each stage is newsworthy and attracts eyeballs. A controversial story transforms itself into star-gazing. The entertainment business is not unique in resurrecting the disgraced and exiled. Comebacks abound in every sphere. The world of politics is rife with similar examples. President Grant was a failed businessman who found his calling in the military and parlayed that into the presidency. Even the great President Lincoln suffered his bumps in the road with his uneven law practice and undistinguished term in the House of Representatives — but did he have a second act! In more recent years, President Carter has enjoyed adulation nouveau. President Nixon, a pariah in the mid-’70s, was treated more kindly in his later years. Sam Walton did not dream up Wal-Mart until he was in his late 50s. The same is true of Ely Callaway of golf equipment fame; his new career occurred after he was passed over unceremoniously for a corporate job. Callaway replanted himself in California, first as a vintner and later inventing and manufacturing world-renowned clubs. Michael Milken has reinvented himself. His Milken Family Foundation and the Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions have made significant contributions to health care. Additionally, the Milken Institute Global Conference, established eight years ago, brings together some of the world’s most extraordinary thinkers and decisionmakers — a kind of mini-Davos. George Foreman went from sullen, menacing ex-heavyweight champion to born-again, happy champ — lionized by the media and hawker extraordinaire of mass-audience kitchen products. Howard Stringer did not let the Tele-TV debacle crush him in the mid-’90s and, in fact, has staged one of the greatest comebacks to the top of the pyramid in corporate entertainment history. On the other side of the camera, examples abound of entertainers who were thought to be “finished,” only to return with a vengeance — Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, John Travolta, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett come to mind. Even Babe Ruth had a terrible year (1925) in what turned out be the middle of his career. He became ill, was hospitalized and practically written off. Two years later, he hit 60 home runs to achieve baseball immortality. Counting people out prematurely is almost a national pastime. You might recall Mark Twain’s comment upon reading his obituary while still alive: “The reports of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” The point is: Don’t count out the Michael Ovitzes, Michael Eisners, Harvey Weinsteins, Carly Fiorinis and Bob Pittmans. We might all live to see that they have greatness (perceived or achieved) ahead. Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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