McDonough School of Business
Upwards facing red arrow
News Story

Office Hours: Robert Bies Discusses Redemption and Second Chances in the Age of Social Media

History is rife with countless stories of leaders who have made mistakes and later forged a comeback, redeeming themselves through the process of rebuilding lost trust and relationships. The road to redemption is something that’s familiar to society as a whole, regardless of an individual’s wealth and social status.

In the article, Second Acts and Second Chances: The Bumpy Road to Redemption, Robert Bies, professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, argues that whether one achieves redemption in modern society is not a product of chance; rather, the road to restored legitimacy requires the purposeful construction of a redemption narrative. A redemption narrative is a story by which the leader who has fallen from grace attempts to persuade others that he or she is a “changed” person and thus deserves the restoration of legitimacy—that is, redemption. Bies’ work also examines some of the critical challenges that those who fell from grace face on their path to redemption.

What does the road to redemption—or second acts and second chances—look like in modern society?

There are numerous examples of business and government leaders who have fallen from grace only to rise again and have a “second act” and a “second chance” as a legitimate social actor or leader—that is, they achieved redemption (e.g., President Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs). There are three key elements that leaders must address in creating their redemption narrative: remorse, rehabilitation, and restoration. Remorse involves giving an apology and taking responsibility for one’s action—of crucial importance, it has to be perceived as sincere. Rehabilitation involves the leader demonstrating they are becoming a “changed” person – they must “walk the talk” and demonstrate their behavior has changed. Restoration is the final step on the road to redemption. While the steps of remorse and rehabilitation are both central to creating the redemption narrative, those acts alone are not sufficient to restore a leader’s image: the leader must also have the validation of others that they believe that the leader has changed—and changed for the better. And this same road to redemption applies to organizations who experienced product or service failures and then worked to restore trust and legitimacy with their customers (e.g., Coca-Cola and New Coke; Netflix and Qwikster).

Are there any common misconceptions regarding how the general public views second chances? 

Despite the mean-spirited tones rampant across social media, for the most part, the general public believes that people deserve a “second chance.” Leaders make mistakes, and they all experience failure, resulting in a fall from grace. However, the general public has also shown that they do not believe all people universally deserve a second chance. For example, the public may not wish to grant redemption to a leader if there is a risk that this will be perceived as redeeming all of those who committed the same transgression and/or inadvertently condoning their deviant behaviors (think Jeffrey Epstein, Bernie Madoff, Matt Lauer). 

As a result of your research findings, what did you learn were some inhibitors or limitations on people achieving redemption?

Our research finds that social media has created new on-ramps and off-ramps that may not have previously existed on the road to redemption. While redemption was hard in the world of print media, social media has accelerated the fall of the sinners as well as changed the redemption journey. Indeed, narratives on social media that focus on the “fall” of a leader often have incredible “staying power,” particularly in an online environment where negative information, even if untrue, may now exist in perpetuity.

Is full redemption possible in one’s lifetime? How might this vary depending on the given scenario?

Our research lays out the optimistic case that redemption may be possible for most, if not all, people, much in line with the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi: “No human being is so bad as to be beyond redemption.” But our research also finds that some people may be beyond redemption in their lifetime (e.g., Harvey Weinstein). Moreover, with changing social norms and standards, those individuals who had been revered historically have literally been “toppled” from their status of legitimacy and respect (e.g., Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson). While redemption may be possible, to achieve it will require that one travel a very bumpy road—and one may never get there in one’s lifetime. But even if one achieves redemption in one’s lifetime, it is like “fame”—it can and will likely be fleeting with time. Am I optimistic and pessimistic about the possibility of real, even lasting, redemption? Yes.   

How do you hope this research impacts today’s world as well as future generations?

It is my hope that our research on redemption reminds us that people can change, they can learn, they can grow, and they can become better human beings. While the journey toward redemption may begin with the individual, people must also be receptive to attempts of those who have fallen to redeem themselves, and to forgive them, for redemption to occur. Indeed, as Bishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, there may be “no future without forgiveness.”