It's not just Wells Fargo: executives who get the golden ax

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It's the definition of "failing upwards." It's become almost rote that when executives resign in disgrace they get to walk away with massive paydays.

This time around, though, there may be some small measure of comeuppance after Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, under fire after his bank was caught creating 2 million accounts that may not have been authorized by customers in order to rack up fees, announced he will forfeit $41 million in stock awards.

Although Stumpf has yet to resign, the bank's independent board of directors is reportedly livid with his handling of the scandal — and the knives are clearly out.

The news comes a day before Stumpf was to testify to Congress, and a week after he was grilled in a Senate hearing on Wells Fargo's questionable cross-selling practices.

RELATED: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf

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Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
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Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf
John Stumpf, President and CEO of Wells Fargo, participates in a panel at the 2015 Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco, California November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf speaks during a news conference for Wachovia employees at the Wachovia corporate headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, October 15, 2008. REUTERS/Chris Keane (UNITED STATES)
TARP recipient financial institution leaders testify before House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 11, 2009. From left are, Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, Bank of New York's Robert Kelly, Bank of America's Ken Lewis,State Street's Ronald Logue, Morgan Stanley's John Mack, Citi's Vikram Pandit, and Wells Fargo's John Stumpf. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES)
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testifies before a Senate Banking Committee hearing on the firm's sales practices on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 20, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 20: John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of the Wells Fargo & Company, prepares for testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee September 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of 'An Examination of Wells Fargo's Unauthorized Accounts and the Regulatory Response.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
John Stumpf, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co., speaks at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Stumpf said he dislikes Federal Reserve monthly bond purchases at this point in the economic cycle and that the policy has hurt savers. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 30: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf (L) speaks with Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerry Baker on FOX Business Networks' 'Opening Bell With Maria Bartiromo' at FOX Studios on April 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
John Stumpf, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co., speaks during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2015. Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank by assets and the nation's leading home lender, in March left Stumpf's pay unchanged at $19.3 million after the firm generated a bigger profit than any other U.S. bank for a second straight year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
John Stumpf, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co., listens to a question during an interview in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2015. Wells Fargo, the fourth-biggest U.S. bank by assets and the nation's leading home lender, in March left Stumpf's pay unchanged at $19.3 million after the firm generated a bigger profit than any other U.S. bank for a second straight year. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The move may be "more about optics than substance," according to Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading, who told Bloomberg the clawback would do little to mollify irate lawmakers or their constituents. And it's only a portion of the total $200 million he stood to receive, should he resign in the fallout.

Related: Wells Fargo CEO to Forfeit $41M in Stock

Executives who are shot out of the cannon after a crisis only to float down on a golden parachute galls the public's sense of righteous indignation, but experts say there are some very good business reasons for the robust severance pay.

"Taking a risk might be right for shareholders, but the CEO might not do it if it could cost him his job," Wharton finance professor Luke Taylor told a university publication. "Somehow, with this cushion, a CEO is willing take risks."

When a leader is nudged to walk the plank, it can "facilitate a smooth and efficient transition from the previous CEO to a new one," wrote Indiana University professors Eitan Goldman and Peggy Huang in a 2010 study. Their research found that prior to a CEO's exit, severance contracts were in place for only 13 percent of Fortune 500 top executives who stepped down between 1993 and 2007 — but 47 percent got a bonus when they left. In other words, some of these CEOs were encouraged to go quietly.

Here are some other times when an executive's fall from grace was cushioned by a big pile of cash:

In pictures: Executives who got the golden ax

6 PHOTOS
Wells Fargo's CEO and other executives who got the golden ax
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Wells Fargo's CEO and other executives who got the golden ax

Roger Ailes, $40 million

POSITION: Chairman, Fox News

WHAT: Sexual harassment claims and a lawsuit alleged that Ailes demoted and fired female anchors and other employees who rejected his overtures.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Ailes has been advising Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Image: REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo

Jeff Smisek, $29 million

POSITION: CEO, United Airlines

WHAT: A federal investigation found the airline had added back a money-losing flight between Newark and Columbia, South Carolina. An official with Port Authority, which oversees Newark airport, happened to own a weekend house near Columbia, and had whinged about the flight being dropped.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Smisek's initially reported severance of $8.4 million was later found out to be $20 million higher, on the condition that he cooperated with investigators following his resignation.

Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Scott Thompson, $7 million

POSITION: CEO, Yahoo (for four months)

WHAT: Claimed he held a bachelor's in computer science and accounting, but he only had the second one. Was able to keep his signing bonus but got no severance.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Thompson is the CEO of ShopRunner, an online shopping service.

Image: AP Photo/Noah Berger

Mark Hurd, $35 million

POSITION: CEO, Hewlett Packard

WHAT: Stepped down amid sexual harassment claims by an adult movie actress, who claimed Hurd had hired her as a company hostess and then made advances on her his hotel room. Hurd's replacement was ousted after 10 months on the job — and received $10 million in severance.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Hurd is the CEO of Oracle Corporation.

Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Robert Willumstad, turned down $22 million

POSITION: CEO, AIG

WHAT: His firm sold financial instruments that underpinned the mortgage bubble and was bailed out by the government in the 2008 crash. In a marked contrast to other ousted execs, Willumstad wrote in a letter to his successor, "I prefer not to receive severance payments while shareholders and employees have lost considerable value in their AIG shares."

WHERE ARE THEY NOW: Willumstad is an adviser to a private equity firm he founded in 2007, and chairman of the board of trustees of Adelphi University, which named its business school after him, following his $9.5 million donation. 

Image: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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