(CNN) -- As figureheads who represent something much greater than themselves, CEOs choose to resign -- or face pressure to do so -- when things go horribly wrong on their watch.
"If something is done in your company that you're not proud of, you should be willing to fall on your sword as a matter of principle," said Eve Poole, co-author of "Ethical Leadership in a Global World."
A high-profile exit can be a major setback, but it doesn't have to be career ending. Case in point: One year on from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, former BP CEO Tony Hayward has landed a role as senior independent director on the board of commodities trader Glencore, which recently filed for a jumbo initial public offering.
In some cases, if you're taking a responsible, principled stand, taking the fall can possibly make you more attractive to future employers, leadership experts said.
Sometimes leaders take the blame even when it wasn't their decision-making that led to the source of the disrepute, said Andrew Ward, associaet dean at Lehigh Business School.
"I think that can even enhance your reputation in the marketplace because it shows you are a leader who does take responsibility not only for your actions but for the actions of the organization -- you're not trying to scapegoat somebody or pass the buck."
When disaster strikes, there isn't a manual for CEOs. However, the honorable thing to do to is at least tender a resignation, whether or not it's accepted, because "you become the organization, you stand for it," Poole noted.
When Vivian Schiller left National Public Radio and Howard Davies departed the London School of Economics last month, their resignations "were actually for the right reasons -- because their organizations were brought into disrepute," Poole, who is also a professor at Ashridge Business School in the UK, said.
It might make sense to resign even if the board isn't howling for your head. There's a difference between what's right for you and what's right for the company, according to Ann Buchholtz.
She's the research director at Rutgers Business School's Institute for Ethical Leadership. Your own interests are perfectly fair to take into account when it comes to choosing to leave, she said.
"You may decide to go even if the organization still needs you. That's a personal decision, that's OK -- you have a right to choose to leave the job," she said.
Carefully planning how you go about taking that step can make the transition to your next position smoother, David Nosal, CEO of executive search firm Nosal Partners, said.
How you communicate your decision -- and the ethics behind your behavior -- is worth careful thought, he added.
"You might even take it a step further, talking to an outside PR person who is also spinning, in parallel with your resignation, other positive attributes or stories," he told CNN.
"People in general are very forgiving. A lot of executives who have either fallen on their sword or just been terminated very publicly have fallen on their feet in time. If you haven't been fired once in your life, you haven't been pushing as aggressively as you should have. "
Lehigh's Ward pointed out that for leaders who resign, openness about the experience -- and what they've learned from it -- may actually be an asset when they seek a new post.
He recommends a "fight, not flight" attitude when it comes to explaining your actions. "Face the situation -- either paint your side of the story, if you don't think what's being portrayed is accurate, or take responsibility for it," Ward said.
He added: "Along with that, express the fact that you've learned from it and that it's not going to happen again."
According to Ward, professionals far below CEO in the corporate pecking order need to keep similar principles of reputation-building in mind.
"You get jobs through your social networks and their connections, so it's getting that message out to your social network," he said.
"You're probably not leading off with that necessarily, and it's not coming across as a panicked 'it wasn't my fault' -- it's reconnecting, building those relationships."