For their book, “The Wisdom of Failure,” authors Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey interviewed 1,000 managers and leaders on one of my favorite topics: failure. The results comprise a fascinating volume on the benefits of blunders.
Here are some insights from their book.
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.