Iconic Founders Like Zimmer Often Make Loud Exits
"Do not go gentle into that good night."
This famous opening line of the classic Dylan Thomas poem is rather apropos of how many visionary company founders cling to power.
The latest example: George Zimmer, founder of The Men's Wearhouse retail chain. He was the company's public face—appearing prominently in television ads and promising customers that "you'll like the way you look."
The war of words in his very public firing as the company's executive chairman reached a fever pitch this week, when he blasted the board and disputed the retailer's contention that he pushed to take the company private in an effort to regain control.
Management expert Jeffrey Sonnenfeld told CNBC's "Squawk Box" this week that Zimmer falls into a category of departing leaders who he described as "generals" in his book "The Hero's Farewell," which explored the culture of corporate succession.
"They leave office, but not gracefully," said Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. "Brilliant, visionary founders have reluctance or ambivalence over leaving."
He cited Apple founder Steve Jobs as another example of this phenomenon.
Since Jobs was so revered before his death, it's almost hard to believe that he found himself on the wrong end of a bitter power struggle at the company he started, and was ousted by Apple in 1985. Jobs, of course, later returned to Apple and turned it into the tech powerhouse it is today.
When a company's brand is tied closely with one individual, it's "not necessarily horrible," Sonnenfeld contended, pointing to Jobs, Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Michael Dell, "visionary founders who had the courage and credibility to refresh and revive the brand."
"In the Zimmer case, we don't really know what is going on behind the scenes," Sonnenfeld explained, "because you seem to have a problem there where he didn't want to apparently surrender the control. It's no longer a private company."
The Men's Wearhouse said last week that Zimmer was indeed fired because he was reluctant to give up operational control. He stepped down as CEO two years ago.
(Read More: Men's Wearhouse: Here's Why We Fired George Zimmer)
In an open letter to The Men's Wearhouse released late Wednesday, Zimmer wrote, "The reality is that over the past two years, and particularly over recent months, I believe that the board and management have been eroding the principles and values that have made The Men's Wearhouse so successful for all stakeholders."
Earlier this year, Zimmer said he had urged the board to consider strategic alternatives, including the possibility of going private.
"Rather than thoughtfully evaluating the idea or even checking the market to see what value might be created through such strategic alternatives, the Board quickly and without the assistance of financial advisors simply rejected the idea, refused to even discuss the topic or permit me to collect and present to the board any information about its possibilities and feasibility, and instead took steps to marginalize and then silence me," he wrote in his letter.