At United ( UAL), Glen Tilton presided over a successful bankruptcy and a 2010 merger with Continental. He served as CEO from 2002 to 2010 and is now chairman.

Like Mulally, Tilton left a 30-year career in one industry to lead a turnaround in another. He put in 30 years at Texaco. Unlike Mulally, Tilton was not popular with employees and didn't embrace reporters.

However, Tilton clearly succeeded in his assignment, and he was well compensated for that. An example is his departure package, valued at $16.8 million, including a $2.7 million discretionary bonus. About a third of the package was in stock, not yet vested, that has declined in value by about $1 million.

At American parent AMR ( AMR), a six-year CEO left last month as the carrier entered bankruptcy.

Gerard Arpey distinguished himself as a moral man. He opposed bankruptcy on moral grounds. But by retiring, even after the board asked him to stay, he forfeited any shot at a severance package or long-term incentives.

But American still requires a turnaround. And ironically, although Arpey sought to avoid bankruptcy in which employee salaries and benefits are bound to be reduced, many employees were not fond of him. For proof, just check the comments on this story, written the day AMR filed for bankruptcy and Arpey retired.

Of the three paths, the one paved by Grinstein appears closest to the one traveled by Mulally. That path has idolization at the end of it. But it is worth remembering that corporation's lives, like people's lives, have ups and downs. Mulally's final corporate decision -- regarding the timing of his departure -- could be among his most important.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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