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The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price by [Weinzimmer, Laurence G., McConoughey, Jim]
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Editorial Reviews Review

Q & A with Laurence G. Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey, Authors of The Wisdom of Failure

Laurence G. Weinzimmer
Laurence G. Weinzimmer
Jim McConoughey
Jim McConoughey
There have been many examples of high profile business failures spotlighted in the press. Why do you believe news stories about failure have become so much more prevalent in recent times?

Strong revenue masks all kinds of mistakes. However the recent recession, when revenue declined across companies and industries, gave people in the business community the opportunity to hear stories that have been buried under prosperity for years. Like a tide that went out unusually far, we were able to see a part of the ocean that is rarely seen. The recession has also led to a heightened interest in learning from these failures. For example, Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to this topic in April, 2011. The recession has clearly created a new paradigm: to become an effective leader, it is not only about doing the "right" things; it is also about avoiding the "wrong" things.

Why did you decide to study failure?

Our study of failure has truly been an evolutionary process. It started almost eight years ago, when we set out to find whether organizations that were accepting of mistakes had stronger or weaker financial performance. After interviewing almost 1,000 managers and leaders across 21 industries, we found that there was a positive relationship between cultures where mistakes were accepted and both individual and firm-level performance. We found that learning organizations used lessons from mistakes as a platform for growth.

Next, we aimed to identify the most damning mistakes--mistakes made by leaders that could not only end careers, but also destroy companies. These types of mistakes provided the richest lessons for leaders. After conducting over a dozen focus groups of experienced leaders, we were able to identify three categories of mistakes: (1) unbalanced orchestration at the company level-strategic errors that result in the misuse of company resources; (2) drama management at the team level-actions by a leader that encourage passive aggressive behavior and bullying, and (3) personality issues at the individual level-extreme personality traits, such as self-absorption, disengagement, and hoarding power.

In the final phase of our study, we interviewed some of the most accomplished leaders across industries to tell their stories about how they benefitted from the lessons of failures. We wanted to find out how they learned from mistakes, what are the warning signs, and what strategies did they use to navigate around these failures. What we found was great leaders only make "original" mistakes--that is, they don't repeat the same mistake twice.

What can understanding failure teach both seasoned and aspiring leaders that they can't learn only by modeling success?

While studying success provides valuable lessons during good times, often these lessons aren't applicable in hard times. The road isn't always smooth and the sky isn't always blue. When challenges present themselves, lessons gleaned from previous failures can help leaders avoid making the same mistake twice or making the wrong decisions.

Making mistakes--or failing--are part of taking healthy risk. They provide us with new ways of thinking and give us new insights into how we can improve as leaders. Real failure doesn't come from making mistakes; it comes from avoiding errors at all possible costs, from fear to take risks, and from the inability to grow. Being mistake free does not lead to success.

Learning from our mistakes, however, is not always possible. Yes, every great leader makes mistakes they can learn from. But there are only a limited number of mistakes you can make before proving yourself an unworthy leader--you can only fall off the corporate ladder so many times before your climb is finished. And the higher up the ladder you get, the more severe the fall. The failure paradox is that in order to succeed we need to know failure--yet we live in an environment where we can't afford to make mistakes. The solution? To study and learn from the mistakes of others in order to proactively avoid the predictable pitfalls that await every leader.

What are the specific benefits of learning from failure?

The benefits of learning from failure can be seen at both the individual level and the organizational level. We found strong statistical evidence between the ability to embrace mistakes and improved individual performance. Specifically we found that leaders who learn from mistakes are more proactive in deflecting potential problems, have a higher level of confidence when taking actions and making decisions, more accurately understand their environments, think more strategically, and are more creative.

These traits and capabilities also translated to the organizational level. Specifically we found that companies that are more accepting of mistakes have significantly better financial performance in terms of both top-line revenue growth, as well as bottom-line profit. We live in a culture that values perfections and hides failure. Companies pay their employees to succeed, not to fail. However, the more we talk about the valuable lessons that come from mistakes and honor discussions about failure, the less likely it will be such a taboo subject.

For The Wisdom of Failure you conducted almost 1,000 interviews with managers and leaders. What about those interviews most surprised you?

We were surprised by how reluctant some leaders were to be associated with the topic of failure. Several times, we had leaders open up to us about key mistakes they had learned from in their own careers, only to call us back the next day to say they didn't want us to use any material from their interviews in our book. Having their names associated with failure was too risky. Of course, we honored their request. This reluctance to discuss failure emphasizes not only how difficult it is for leaders to talk about mistakes, but also the costly consequences leaders believe will follow if they do.


“After reading only one of the chapter headings of The Wisdom of Failure—‘Does This Doorframe Make My Head Look Big?’—I knew I was in for a real treat. Luckily for me, the rest of the book does not disappoint. Through their analysis of many pointed leadership examples in American business, the authors distill corporate lessons into pearls of wisdom from which all of us can learn.”
—Marshall Goldsmith, New York Times bestselling author, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There

“A definitive piece of work that makes a most compelling connection between understanding failure and experiencing success. A must-read for serious-minded leaders who want to take their businesses to higher ground in an enduring way.”
—Douglas R. Conant, former president, CEO, and director, Campbell Soup Company; New York Times bestselling author, Touchpoints

“In this important new book from Weinzimmer and McConoughey, we discover how true it is, that the best leaders are the best learners. The Wisdom of Failure is a rare, honest look at both sides of the leadership story. Solidly researched and filled with practical examples you can apply immediately, this book should be read by leaders across the board.”
—Jim Kouzes, Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University; bestselling coauthor, The Leadership Challenge

“All great leaders learn from their mistakes, but mistakes are a precious and costly resource. This provocative and thoughtful book allows you to learn from others’ mistakes, so you can learn without paying the price. Buy copies for everyone on your team and leverage these lessons on your journey to creating extraordinary results.”
—Saj-nicole Joni, confidential CEO advisor; bestselling author, The Right Fight

The Wisdom of Failure is an epiphany. From the very first chapter, Weinzimmer and McConoughey shift the reader’s focus beyond short term accolades and trade-offs to a horizon where a leader can find true success and accomplishment. In their well-researched book, the authors give leaders the tough love they need to learn from their mistakes before their mistakes become costly. A must-read for aspiring, new, and seasoned leaders.”
—Jennifer Robin, Ph.D., author, The Great Workplace

“The importance of understanding failure’s lessons cannot be overstated in today’s fast-moving business environment, and The Wisdom of Failure offers a smart research-based guide to navigating these tough leadership lessons. You’ll be engaged from the very first page.”
—Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, Harvard Business School; author, Teaming

The Wisdom of Failure allows you to benefit from the inevitable growth that comes from failure without having to experience it first-hand. An invaluable read for anyone striving to move themselves and their business forward.”
—Dan Schawbel, founder, Millennial Branding; author, Me 2.0

“Never before has learning from failure been more important—to innovation, to learning, to strategy under uncertainty, and to the development of the next generation of leaders. Ironically, in many organizations the attitude towards failure virtually guarantees not only that people won’t learn its valuable lessons but that they will also suffer the brunt of its downsides. This well-researched and accessible book is a timely summary of how failure can be useful, even essential, and serves as a welcome reminder of the importance of ‘failing forward.’”
—Rita Gunther McGrath, strategy and innovation advisor, Columbia Business School Professor; coauthor, Discovery-Driven Growth

“Having worked with hundreds of emerging companies, I have seen failure in all flavors! Finally we have, in one well-written book, the lessons learned from such experiences. The Wisdom of Failure is an instant business classic destined for the tablets and shelves of our innovation economy’s leaders.”
—Larry Weber, chairman and CEO, W2 Group

“Leaders become great only when they have overcome adversity. We learn how to grow from our setbacks. Weinzimmer and McConoughey have created a simple framework and practical methodology to develop an organizational culture that encourages productive innovation. The Wisdom of Failure provides us with the research, case studies, and tools to transform our failures into our biggest successes.”
—Jeff DeGraff, professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan; author, Innovation You, Leading Innovation, and Creativity at Work

“Every truly great leader has experienced failure and (more important) learned from it. Organizations that support ‘smart’ failure are more innovative, adaptable, resilient, and profitable. In The Wisdom of Failure, Weinzimmer and McConoughey have distilled the key factors that are most likely to push every one of us off track, and outlined the practices that leaders, teams, and entire organizations can use to navigate around those hazards. If you aren’t pushing yourself to the point where failure is a possibility, you are not coming close to your potential as a leader. But in today’s times, where acceleration is the new normal, you’ll need this book as your guide.”
—Eric McNulty, editor, Harvard School of Public Health; coauthor, You’re It! Lessons from Crisis Meta-Leadership

Product Details

  • File Size: 780 KB
  • Print Length: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass; 1 edition (August 30, 2012)
  • Publication Date: August 30, 2012
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00959HRV2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #873,903 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I have often blogged about failure. Having a failure does not making someone a failure. It is better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all. And of course one of the expressions I am known for is "fail often, fail fast, fail cheap". This is one way for companies to innovate.

So of course I was interested to read Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McCooughey's book - The Widsom of Failure - How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price.

I have long said that true wisdom is learning from other people's mistakes. Easy to say, tough to do. There is always a temptation to think others have failed because they were not smart enough, did not work hard enough, it was the wrong time etc. but when we are in the same position, we, too, often fail. I have seen this repeatedly in entrepreneurial situations.

The Power of Wisdom delves into almost all conceivable failure mechanisms. It includes real life business examples.

The Wisdom of Failure has many great chapters. One is "Seduced by Yes, Being All Things to All People". I know I tend to lack focus and it has served me well but I also know if I had more focus on just one thing I would be stronger. It is a balance.

Another is "Entrenched by Efficiency - Forgetting to put Effectiveness First". Again -the title says it all. We often chase efficiency where what we really want is effectiveness. We sometimes measure activities where what we really want is results.

Not admitting failure can cause wrong thinking and can even lead to cheating and massive failure. This pressure can be greatest in public companies where small failures are punished harshly and the time horizon is often months, not years.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is like reading a textbook. The authors identify a concept, then list three or four categories of it. Then they provide an example. Then another concept is introduced, and three or four more categories of that concept are described again, along with another example. The back cover claims that the authors interviewed many high level managers and directors, which sounds impressive, and I have no doubt they did, however the use of these examples leads me to believe otherwise. An example used may only be described at the 30,000 foot view, and only take a paragraph to explain it. At first I thought it was simply a couple examples that were like that, but it quickly grew into a large pile of examples. They are very different examples, I'll grant the authors that, but it seemed like in such a spectacular management failure like Enron, the authors only cherry-picked certain activities to outline their point. I got the impression that the entire Enron fiasco came about because of one or two things. However, if one was to seriously examine the case, he would find that it wasn't only a single failure or two at the top, but a systematic series of failures that led to the demise of the organization (and as a result, the creation of SOX laws). This book would lead you to believe differently. It has great breadth, but very little depth in terms of the research presented to support their concepts. The examples and research brought forth in this book do a fine example of covering a large array of industries, but it seems the authors only scratched the surface of examining the problems, and were quick to attach a label to the type of behavior exhibited by the leaders, or the culture in that organization.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Wisdom of Failure is an insightful book about learning from not only success, but failures. The book contains a number of examples of how business leaders can learn from other's real-ife experiences in terms of analyzing when and how leadership goes awry. The authors offer sound advice from a wide source of industry leaders with proven track records of success - and from those who have learned to become better leaders through the crucible of failure.
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By Aukie on September 6, 2015
Format: Hardcover
Based on the nice title I expected to read inspiring examples of people who succeeded after overcoming failure. Instead the book is full of Monday-morning quarterbacking, assigning blame for failed companies to specific individuals and labeling them with categories such as "greedy", "bully" or "celebrity". In most cases the causes and effects leading to a large company failing are not so simple. The same approach can be taken to argue that companies fail because of nice people in leadership, or because of any other reason. Because of this the book wasn't particularly convincing or motivating (and I had expected a motivating book from the title). The conclusions drawn by the authors (essentially, "don't be greedy", "don't be a bully", etc.) are good qualities with which I agree - otherwise I would give a lower rating.
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Format: Hardcover
My review title says it all. Indeed, I find it relative boring and clumsy, which can be attributed to the authors story telling and writing skills. For those leaders who want to learn from mistakes of others, I would like to suggest the following for your consideration:-
- "Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Leif Babin"
- "Will Your Next Mistake Be Fatal?: Avoiding the Chain of Mistakes That Can Destroy Your Organization by Robert E. Mittelstaedt",
- "Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes by Sydney Finkelstein"
- "In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters by Merrill Chapman"
- "Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years by Paul B. Carroll"
- "The Strategy Paradox: Why committing to success leads to failure (and what to do about it) by Michael E. Raynor"

p.s. Below please find some favorite passages of mine for your reference.
How can you think outside the box if you don’t know what the box is? Pg20
I can’t believe when I see people not writing things down. You know they’re not going to remember everything. – Sir Richard Branson pg51
The Federal Railroad Administration reported that in 2008, nearly two thousand derailments occurred in U.S.. Amongst those incidents, nearly one third were caused by human factors, usually a result of going too fast. The cliché “falling asleep at the switch” is rarely a cause. It’s not that the people in charge aren’t paying attention; they are. They’re just making bad decisions. Pg57
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust pg74
There is nothing more wasteful than becoming highly efficient at doing the wrong thing. – Peter Drucker pg77
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