Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

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Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
Born(1954-04-01)April 1, 1954
Spouse(s)Clarky Sonnenfeld
Academic background
Alma materHarvard University (AB, MBA, doctorate)
Academic work
InstitutionsYale School of Management Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies, Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management, founder of Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI)

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld (born April 1954) is an academic, Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at Yale School of Management, and Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies. Sonnenfeld is the founder of Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI), a non-profit educational and research institute focused on CEO leadership and corporate governance.

Before joining Yale in 1999, he taught for ten years as a professor at the Harvard Business School and nine years as a professor at Emory University's Goizueta Business School. Sonnenfeld is widely regarded as a leading international authority on corporate governance, corporate leadership, and a groundbreaking pioneer of CEO learning.[1]

Sonnenfeld is known to have advised multiple U.S. Presidents and nominees from both parties, including Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, and Joseph Biden. Sonnenfeld appears regularly on CNBC as a contributor and writes regular pieces for Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Chief Executive Magazine.[2]


Early life[edit]

Born in Philadelphia, April 1, 1954, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the son of Burton Sonnenfeld, a men's clothing retailer, and Rochelle Sonnenfeld, a healthcare planner and community leader, who came to the US as a refugee immigrant from Russian pogroms. Sonnenfeld attended public schools in Cheltenham and Abington townships in suburban Montgomery County, Pennsylvania and was an active school leader. While his summers were spent working in the community as an Eagle Scout counselor, he worked through the year in his parents’ retail clothing store in nearby Hatboro, Pennsylvania. He earned his AB, MBA, and doctorate at Harvard University, and during his undergraduate days, he was President of WHRB, the college radio station, as well as an oarsmen. At age 26, he joined the faculty of the Harvard Business School where he taught for 10 years.[1]

Early career - corporate societal impact[edit]

As a professor at the Harvard Business School, he was the founding faculty sponsor of the Harvard-Radcliffe Women's Leadership Forum. He published his first two articles in the Harvard Business Review at age 24. In “Why Do Companies Succumb to Price Fixing?” he interviewed leaders as they left prison for illegal collusion, to understand their justification for knowingly committing white collar crimes. In “Dealing with an Aging Work force,” he explored the gaps between the changing labor demography and related corporate retirement policies,[3] and subsequently served on the board of the National Council on Aging and the President's Advisory Council of the AARP.

Midcareer - CEO leadership[edit]

His later books focused on executive careers and succession studies. His work on strategic staffing presented a model of four types of cultures: baseball teams; clubs; academies; and fortresses. His book on CEO succession, The Hero's Farewell: What Happens when CEOs Retire (Oxford University Press, 1988) was the first systematic study of the impact of the exiting incumbent leader upon their organization. In studying the succession of a generation of prominent business leaders, he revealed two frequently misunderstood motives of leaders, in late career: Heroic Mission - a quest for immortal legacy and Heroic Stature - a quest for renown identity. He also developed a typology of departure styles labeled: monarchs; ambassadors; generals; and governors. Based upon this work, Sonnenfeld was asked to head the Blue Ribbon Commission on CEO Succession of the National Association of Corporate Directors.[4]

Following the publication of The Hero's Farewell, he left Harvard in 1989 to launch the first school for incumbent CEOs at Emory University, now known as Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute. These events produced many firsts such as the first educational forum for media leaders which unified entertainment; journalism, technology, and telecom leaders and the first financial services leadership events to unite insurance, banking, mutual funds, investment banks, and savings and loan leaders with top government regulators. Leaders in converging fields such as Sumner Redstone of Viacom; Michael Dell; Steve Case of AOL; and Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting met each other at these programs. While at Emory, Sonnenfeld was heavily involved in the Atlanta community, working as an advisor to the leadership of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games; a member of the Governor's Personnel Review Commission; and a commissioner of the local county economic development council.

Move to Yale University[edit]

After a decade at Emory University, Sonnenfeld joined the faculty at Yale, bringing with him the CEO College and launching the Chief Executive Leadership Institute, where it still resides.[5] At Yale, he built a new department of Executive Programs, offering 35 programs a year to roughly 2,000 top leaders with sessions in New Haven, New York, Beijing, Delhi, Mumbai, and Shanghai, and opened Yale University's first outpost in Washington, DC in 2011 with support from Lynn Tilton of Patriarch Partners and Leslie Miller Saointz.

His 2007 book, Firing Back (with Andrew Ward, Harvard Business School Press), studies the paths to resilience for felled CEOs, as well as victims from natural disasters, warfare, and other forms of disruption and adversity. Firing Back looks at various societal and psychological barriers to recovery and offers guidelines for getting lives back on track with a focus on how tragedy is critical for defining heroic careers. At Yale he teaches courses on leading strategic change and executive careers.

At Yale SOM, Sonnenfeld teaches the popular course "Strategic Leadership Across Sectors", which is consistently the school's most popular and oversubscribed course. Sonnenfeld's previous students from Harvard, Emory, and Yale have gone on to become CEOs, political leaders, and leaders in a wide variety of fields.[1]

Sonnenfeld continues to be active in the local community, as a director of Art Space New Haven, a leader in the United Way annual campaign, and a director of the Calvin Hill School. His older brother, Marc Sonnenfeld, is a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Philadelphia.[6] Jeffrey Sonnenfeld currently resides in Connecticut with his wife, Clarky, and their two daughters, Sophie and Lauren.


Sonnenfeld is the founder of Chief Executive Leadership Institute (CELI), a non-profit educational and research institute focused on CEO leadership and corporate governance, and the world's first school for chief executives.[2] He pioneered the program as a prototype at the Harvard Business School in 1987 and 1988.[1] In 2000, this institute moved to Yale University where it presently resides.

Sonnenfeld's CEO Summits have drawn leaders from business, government, public policy, nonprofits, NGOs, and higher education. Past attendees have included Stephen Schwarzman, Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, Ray Dalio, Ashton Carter, Elaine Chao, Maurice Greenberg, Dina Powell, Robert Hormats, Carla Hills, Farooq Kathwari, John Bogle, John Whitehead, Albert Gordon, Jeffrey Bewkes, Randall Stephenson, David Shulkin, Wilbur Ross, Steven Mnuchin, Anthony Scaramucci, Peter Orszag, John Negroponte, Chris Shays, Indra Nooyi, Kevin Rudd, Steven Mnuchin, Ken Langone, David Solomon, Peter Navarro, Bob Woodward, Roland Betts, Peter Salovey, Danny Meyer, Brian Duperreault, Joanne Lipman, Jeff Zucker, Stefano Pessina, Dennis Muilenburg, Alex Gorsky, David Abney, Robert Lighthizer, Jared Kushner and many other influential leaders from across sectors. In December 2019, The Chief Executive Leadership Institute celebrated its 100th CEO Summit in New York City.[1]

On behalf of Yale University, Sonnenfeld is responsible for presenting the prestigious Yale Legend of Leadership Award and the Yale Lifetime of Leadership Award. Past recipients have included Colin Powell, Carla Hills, Stephen Schwarzman, Maurice Greenberg, John Whitehead, John Bogle, Albert Gordon, David Stern, Bernard Marcus, Bob Iger, Indra Nooyi, Janet Yellen, Ginni Rometty, Mary Barra, Brian Moynihan, David Rubenstein, Marillyn Hewson, Jamie Dimon, and Ken Frazier.[2]

His scholarly research focus is in management and social responsibility, and he has published in journals such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, The Academy of Management Review, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Social Forces, Human Relations, and Human Resource Management, as well as authored many books, including The Hero's Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire (Oxford University Press, 1988) and Firing Back: How Great Leaders Overcome Adversity (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) with Emory alumnus Andrew Ward. Sonnenfeld has served on the editorial boards of several journals, and his professional activities also include membership on various non-profit organization and public company boards.

Professor Sonnenfeld earned the 2018 Ellis Island award from the US Ellis Island Foundation. He was Harvard's first John Whitehead Faculty Fellow and won outstanding educator awards at Yale, Emory and the American Society for Training and Development. Additionally, he was the winner of ATT's "Hawthorn Award for Social Research in Industry" and Richard D. Irwin Award for Management Research. He was also awarded the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award by the Boy Scouts of America. His work is regularly cited by the general media in such outlets as: Fortune, Business Week, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Financial Times; The Economist; Bloomberg; Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, CBS (60 Minutes), NBC (The Today Show), ABC (Nightline, Good Morning America), CNN, and CNBC, where he serves as a staff commentator.[7] Sonnenfeld was listed by Business Week as one of the “ten B-school professors who are influencing contemporary business thinking”[8] and one of the “100 most influential players in corporate governance” by National Association of Corporate Director's Directorship.[9] He is the first academician to have rung the opening bells of both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq Stock Exchange.

He is on the board of IEX[10] and the National Council on Aging. He is a member of the Ellis Island Foundation Trustees and is a board member for Advance Connecticut with the Connecticut Economic Resource Center. He formerly served on the boards of the Georgia Governor’s Personnel Commission and the Dekalb County Economic Development Association

Selected publications[edit]

  • Sonnenfeld, J., Kusin, M., & Waltonz, E. (2013). What CEOs Really Think of Their Boards. Harvard Business Review, 91(4), 98-106.
  • Sonnenfeld, J., "The Jamie Dimon Witch Hunt", New York Times op-ed, May 8, 2013. Argued that having separate individuals serving as board chair and CEO is "no panacea that ensures good economic results or good governance" as the JPMorgan Chase chairman, president and CEO, a CELI participant, faced a proxy vote favoring separation.
  • Hayibor, S., Agle, B., Sears, G., Sonnenfeld, J., & Ward, A. (2011). Value Congruence and Charismatic Leadership in CEO-Top Manager Relationships: An Empirical Investigation. Journal of Business Ethics, 102(2), 237-254. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-0808-y.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. A., & Ward, A. J. (2007). FIRING BACK: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters. Harvard Business Review, 85(1), 76-84.
  • Gandossy, R., & Sonnenfeld, J., ed. (2004). Leadership and Governance from the Inside Out. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. A. (2002). What Makes Great Boards Great. Harvard Business Review, 80(9), 106-113.
  • Epstein, C., Olivares, F., Bass, B., Graham, P., Schwartz, F. N., Siegel, M. R., Mansbridge, J., Lloyd, K., Wyskocil, P., Cohen, A., Bradford, D., Sonnenfeld, J., & Goldberg, C. (1991). Ways Men and Women Lead. Harvard Business Review, 69(1), 150-160.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1988). The Hero's Farewell: what happens when CEOs retire. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. A. (1984). Managing Career Systems: Channeling the Flow of Executive Careers, Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. A., (1981). Corporate Views of the Public Interest, Boston: Auburn House.
  • Sonnenfeld, J., & Lawrence, P. R. (1978). Why do companies succumb to price fixing? Harvard Business Review, 56(4), 145-157.
  • Sonnenfeld, J. (1978). Dealing with the aging work force. Harvard Business Review, 56(6), 81-92.


  1. ^ a b c d e Rifkin, G. (2011, Winter). CEO Master Class, Briefings Magazine, The Korn/Ferry Institute.
  2. ^ a b c Yale School of Management, Chief Executive Leadership Institute, About -
  3. ^ Yale School of Management, Faculty Publications,
  4. ^ Oxford University Press,
  5. ^ Yale School of Management, Chief Executive Leadership Institute, CEO College, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-07-20. Retrieved 2013-05-20.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  6. ^ Marc Sonnenfeld (bio). Morgan, Lewis & Bockius,
  7. ^ Yale School of Management, faculty profile,
  8. ^ Macsai, D. (2007, Aug 22). B-School All-Stars, BusinessWeek, 13.
  9. ^ Directorship 100. (cover story). (2007, Sep). NACD Directorship, 33(4), 21-37.
  10. ^ Executive Team, IEX, retrieved October 26, 2017

External links[edit]