The Wisdom of Failure

By Frank Radosevich II
September 6, 2012

Success in business is sweet but failure can often be just as fruitful.

Though seldom associated with effective leaders, failure is something most people encounter in the business world and learning from it can make or break a company. Acknowledging setbacks, however, is taboo and far too often leaders obsess over what they should do rather than what they should avoid.

“Most books on leadership say similar things,” said Dr. Larry Weinzimmer, the Caterpillar Inc. Professor of Strategic Management. “Here’s what great leaders do; emulate them. It’s lured us into a false understanding of what effective leadership is.”

As a result, Dr. Weinzimmer, and his co-author Jim McConoughey, set out to focus on the “dark side” of leadership and illustrate to business professionals what their missteps can teach them. His book, “The Wisdom of Failure: How to learn the tough leadership lessons without paying the price,” draws from 7 years of academic research on leadership and more than a dozen focus groups and interviews with managers and CEOs.

Dr. Weinzimmer said the book is written to help leaders spot potential errors in their management style and provide ways to proactively fix the problems. The in-depth interviews give the reader first-hand accounts from executives who understand that the biggest failure is making the same mistake over and over.

The book notes how companies regularly praise short-term success and punish failure even when there are valuable lessons to be absorbed. Consequently, business leaders will ignore, misread or hide their mistakes instead of confronting and scrutinizing them.

“What this book allows you to do is learn the lessons and recognize the signs without making the mistakes,” Dr. Weinzimmer said. “Leadership is a journey and sometimes you’re going to make mistakes. Great leaders will pick themselves up and look at what happened and make sure they don't make the same mistake again.”

As an example of what not to do, the book opens with the story of the meteoric rise of an unnamed businessman who piloted a small, regional company into a nationwide juggernaut.

But the shrewd CEO of the Fortune 50 company turned out to be none other than Kenneth Lay, the founder and former head of Enron, whose company imploded in 2001 after analysts discovered widespread accounting fraud at Enron. When Lay’s hot streak went cold, Dr. Weinzimmer said, he didn’t admit to his mistakes and try to move on. Instead he covered them up until they came crashing down upon him.

Dr. Weinzimmer, who has written three books — one of which, “Fast Growth: How to Attain it, How to Sustain it,” became a national bestseller — and more than 100 academic articles, said each mistake is usually an extreme action, like being too reckless or cautious. The key, he said, is finding the middle ground.

“Effective leaders find a healthy balance. They understand mistakes will be made and always stop to look at what went wrong,” he said.

The book will be published Oct. 8 and available at the Bradley Bookstore, and