News Column

Gift: Book Sees the Upside to Failure

Dec. 16, 2012

Steve Tarter

The fact that "The Wisdom of Failure" has become a hit on the lists of best-selling business books in the country doesn't surprise co-author Laurence Weinzimmer.

"When you look at the best-selling business books on the market, most explore what great leaders do. What we did was tell the other half of the story," said Weinzimmer, a professor of management at Bradley University, who wrote "Wisdom" along with Jim McConoughey, the former CEO of the Heartland Partnership.

The other half of the story is what business leaders did wrong.

"No one tells about their mistakes," said Weinzimmer, who authored a 2001 best-seller, "Fast Growth: How to Attain It, How to Sustain It."

"Most business books are based on opinion. We based everything on research. We did focus groups. We talked to CEOs and former CEOs," he said.

McConoughey said that research pointed to a number of ways that business leaders could go astray. "There was a lack of innovation, where (leaders) didn't go in that direction; strategic or team mistakes or a leader's individual flaws," he said.

The book opens by drawing a dramatic parallel between two prominent business leaders, Enron's Ken Lay and former Caterpillar chairman Jim Owens (who retired in 2010).

Both men were about the same age, grew up in homes where money was scarce, worked numerous jobs to help their families and both developed as business leaders at about the same time.

But there were big differences. "Owens achieved numerous successes in large part by learning from his own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others," noted the authors.

Lay, on the other hand, attempted to hide his mistakes, "ending up as one of the most catastrophic flawed leaders in U.S. business history," according to "Wisdom."

The book focused on some of the characteristics of business leaders, such as billionaire Richard Branson, president of the Virgin Group, who has a habit of scribbling down ideas as he thinks of them, filling notebooks by the dozen.

Jeff Hoffman, a founder of Priceline, explained to the book's authors that sometimes a business leader has to say no -- to money.

"We had a chance to sell suitcases (online). Is there money in selling suitcases? Absolutely, but we decided we are not going to get into luggage. Rather, we are going to expand the (travel) business that we already do better than anyone else," Hoffman is quoted as saying.

It also didn't hurt that Weinzimmer and McConoughey were asking business leaders about mistakes during the worst recession in U.S. history since the Great Depression. "Prosperity tends to hide mistakes," said Weinzimmer.

McConoughey said that a CEO's personality was also a topic in the book. "Dysfunctional behavior (by a CEO) creates problems for a company. You have the self-absorbed leader and the yes-man scenario. Then there's the leader who believes that he or she cannot fail," he said.

Mistakes are a part of life. it's how one reacts to them that makes the diofference, said McConoughey.

Weinzimmer added that a CEO needs a truth-teller. "Without (Dr.) Watson, (Sherlock) Holmes would have lost touch with reality," he said.

"Find someone who's not impressed by your accomplishments or titles. Specifically, to avoid the slow fade into self-absorption, you need someone who is willing to call you out when your head starts getting too big," said Weinzimmer.

The book seeks to challenge the concept of avoiding mistakes at all costs. "We put pressure on children not to fail, teaching them that making mistakes is not acceptable. But to err is human. It's inevitable," said Weinzimmer.

While the book's focus is on business, the lessons are universal, said the Bradley professor. "Anybody can relate to this book. Grandparents can use it to relate to their grandchildren," he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com.

Follow his blog, Minding Business, on pjstar.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2012 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.)


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