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The Wisdom of Failure

By Laurence Weinzimmer and Jim McConoughey

(Jossey-Bass, 282 pages, $33.95)

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We learn from our mistakes. But it's easier to learn from the mistakes of others. There's less damage to our organization and, if we're alert, still a chance to avoid making the same error ourselves down the road.

"Great leaders embrace the learning they get from mistakes (both their own and others')," Laurence Weinzimmer, a professor of management at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and business development specialist Jim McConoughey write in The Wisdom of Failure.

They note that when studying great leadership, we usually focus on the strategies and attributes of the leaders, but often that is only half the story. Being a great leader is not only about making the right decisions but also about actively avoiding the wrong decisions. They point to Ken Lay, founder of Enron, who made many brilliant decisions but was toppled by the wrong decisions he failed to avoid.

"Although there are paths to follow in order to be an effective leader, there are also paths you should not follow in order to be an effective leader," the authors observe.

Learning from the failure of others also helps us sidestep what the authors call the failure paradox. For all the rhetoric about the benefits of learning from our mistakes, the reality is that at a certain level in organizations, failure is simply not an option.

So it helps if you can get your lessons from elsewhere, such as the nine most damning mistakes the authors identified in a seven-year research study.

Those errors can be grouped into three categories, each of which manifest themselves in three common leadership mistakes:

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1. Unbalanced orchestration

The first type of error is what the authors call unbalanced orchestration at the organizational level – misuse of talent and resources in the short term combined with an inability to focus on a vision for the future. The three common mistakes:

Trying to be all things to all people: Ineffective leaders often lack the good sense to say no, instead giving in to requests from potential customers that draw them away from their strategic direction. Perhaps some money is made initially, but that hides the ultimate waste of resources from the misdirection.

Roaming outside the box: We've been told repeatedly to think outside the box, but it's better to know which box you are in – many leaders don't – and search for profitable gains in the area you understand rather than a new field you don't.

Efficiencies before effectiveness: It's far more valuable to concentrate on effectiveness, than to blindly focus on efficiency, which is internally directed and divorced from growth. Circuit City, for example, bought real estate in cheaper locales than Best Buy, meaning its outlets were in shopping centres with fewer customers; it then cut 3,400 knowledgeable sales people to decrease costs, many of whom took their smarts to Best Buy. Ever-efficient Circuit City closed its doors in 2009.

2. Drama Management

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The second type of error is drama management at the team level – a lack of discipline, pace, and appropriate communication in a team, leading to dysfunctional behaviour. Three leadership mistakes in this category:

Bullying management: Bullying managers are more common that we acknowledge, and they can be corrosive, creating unnecessary heartache and drama in organizations.

Dysfunctional harmony: At the same time, leaders have to be willing to be disliked as they lead. Leaders also have to avoid seeking the pretense of harmony, pushing for "one happy family" while ignoring the fact that not everyone is in agreement (but they are pretending to be with resulting passive-aggressive behaviour).

Distracted purpose: A leader can create unnecessary drama by encouraging competition within the team that becomes destructive, playing favourites and relying too much on individual talents rather than the collective synergy of the group.

3. Personality faults

The third type of error is personality issues at the individual level – personality faults and a disconnect from reality that inhibits someone from leading effectively. The three leadership mistakes resulting from personality failures are:

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Hoarding: The leader views himself or herself as superior to everyone else, refusing to delegate and micromanaging others.

Disengagement: Organizations can be destroyed by leaders who burn out but remain at the top; leaders without a real interest in their job, such as founders who prefer to vacation and play golf than work; and celebrity CEOs who are so busy globetrotting and gaining acclaim they have lost touch with what's happening in their business.

Self-absorption: The researchers save the biggest mistake for last – leaders who allow their ego to run wild. They begin to believe they are invincible, but aren't.

We're all familiar with these nine danger points, and the book fills in the details, with many examples, and sensible advice for correcting the mistakes. You may be reminded of mistakes you have not properly addressed, and also become alert to others that down the road may pose a danger.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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