Leadership Comebacks

History is replete with stories of monumental failure followed by inspired redemption.

“That Was The Greatest Comeback Since Lazarus.”—SID WADDELL (English sports commentator and television personality)

Four Legendary Turnarounds

History is replete with stories of monumental failure followed by inspired redemption. One can’t enjoy the full measure of success without experiencing the pain and education of failure, and most leaders, whether in business, politics, sports, entertainment or the military, will acknowledge that victory is far sweeter coming on the heels of defeat. What follows are some examples of inspired leadership comebacks.

Ask any executive or leadership guru to name the leaders they most admire, and the majority will place Nelson Mandela among the top three, along with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. As a young and vocal leader of the African National Congress, Mandela, a lawyer, was determined to bring justice and equality to black South Africans, who made up 80 percent of the country’s population but were denied almost all freedoms by the white Afrikaners’ ruling government. Determined, charismatic, brilliant and resourceful, Mandela became a leader in the ANC and was arrested on treason charges and later on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state. At 44 years of age, he was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Robben Island prison near Cape Town. He spent the next 27 years in prison, most of it at hard labor. During his time in prison, he never stopped believing in the cause, and his name became the rallying cry for the anti-apartheid movement around the world.

When he was released at age 71 in 1990, Mandela emerged as an iconic world figure who symbolized the strength of self-determination and forgiveness. Rather than express hatred and anger at his unjust imprisonment, Mandela spoke of the importance of reconciliation without retribution as the only hope for the future of a South African democracy with equality for all of its citizens. He became a master negotiator and spent his last years in prison and first years outside of prison formulating a plan to work with the white government, repair the fractures within the ANC, and to set the stage for majority rule in South Africa. In 1994, by an overwhelming majority, Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa. He served just one term, though he could have easily won again and again. His statesmanship and leadership skills kept South Africa from descending into a bloody civil war, and he became a symbol of hope for oppressed people around the world. In a 2007 interview with the New York Times for his own obituary, Mandela was asked, “After such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check?”  His answer was almost dismissive: “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.”

Winston Churchill Considered perhaps the 20th century’s most inspiring leader, Winston Churchill, an icon of staunch and exceptional stewardship as Britain’s resolute prime minister during World War II, endured a decade or more in which his career appeared to be in terminal decline. As a young man, Churchill began an upwardly mobile climb in Britain’s turbulent political scene. He had gained fame as a military officer who displayed exceptional valor during fighting in India and the Boer War. He wrote best-selling books about his exploits, and when he returned to England, he was easily elected to a seat in Parliament as a conservative MP. He was made home secretary in 1910 and later first lord of the admiralty. He fought in the trenches during World War I and returned even more admired to his home in England. When the war ended in 1918, Lloyd George named Churchill secretary of state for war and air. But his promising career stalled when he lost his seat in 1922 and found himself outside the political world for the first time.

During what he called “The Wilderness Years” Churchill spent time writing and painting, but after another short stint in Parliament, he was swept out, along with the Labour Party in 1929. The stock market crash left him in financial straits, and he all but vanished from the political scene. As Hitler rose to power, Churchill spoke out from the backbenches and issued warning after warning of a coming crisis with Germany.

Well past the typical age of retirement in his era, Churchill emerged from political exile and became prime minister in 1940. His unwavering courage and inspirational voice during the Battle of Britain and throughout World War II brought that beleaguered nation through its darkest days. After much effort, he persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt to provide support for the Allies, and as the U.S. entered the war, F.D.R. and Churchill steered the Allies to victory.

Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore, is one of the world’s most respected statesmen.  He served as that nation’s first prime minister and held office for more than three decades—from 1959 to 1990—one of the longest tenures among democratically elected heads of state in the world. But LKY, as he is known, had to endure an agonizing period of uncertainty and instability early in his tenure before building Singapore into one of the most successful and admired Asian economies. Lee, born a British subject when Singapore was a colony, studied at the London School of Economics and Cambridge University. He began his political career when he and a group of fellow English-educated Singaporeans founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954. He rose to prominence along with his party, and when Singapore merged with Malaysia in order to end British sovereignty in 1963, Lee believed he had put his country on a path to a successful future. But the merger proved to be short-lived as the Malaysian ruling party grew increasingly concerned about Singapore’s Chinese majority. By 1965, the coupling fell apart and a formal separation was signed.  Lee was devastated. In a televised press conference that day, he was nearly in tears.

“Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement which severed Singapore from Malaysia, it will be a moment of anguish,” Lee said. “For me, it is a moment of anguish because all of my life…I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories.”

But rather than dwell on the past, Lee began to transform his nation, focusing directly on economic development and creating a strong culture and society in this once-downtrodden colony.  In one of history’s great comebacks, Lee single-handedly forged a new Singapore—using such controversial tactics as corporal punishment in the form of caning, and making such vices as chewing gum or spitting punishable offenses—to create a formidable legacy. He also created an efficient, well-paid and corruption-free bureaucracy and spent heavily on education and innovation. Despite a small population, limited land and no natural resources, Singapore has become a much-envied and respected nation. Lee, now 90, continues to write and participate in the political process. He is among the most widely praised and revered world leaders.

Distance swimmer Diana Nyad refused to give up her dream of swimming the 103 daunting miles from Cuba to Key West, Fla. Having failed in four previous, excruciating attempts, Nyad finally conquered the ocean, the currents, the wind, the sharks and the jellyfish and staggered ashore on Sept. 2, 2013, to the cheers of friends and fans. That she accomplished this feat at age 64, when most serious swimmers are happy to do 50 laps in the pool at the Y, was testament to her mantra, “Find a way!”

Nyad first tried to swim the Florida Straits at age 29 in 1978. She made her next four attempts after the age of 60. She was beaten on her previous tries by rough seas, a brutal asthma attack and an overwhelming barrage of jellyfish stings. This time, inspired by the recent death of her mother, Nyad wore a suit and mask to protect her from jellyfish. “I got three messages,” she told reporters on the beach. “One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team that gets it done.”  

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