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managing books


By Rick Newman

(Ballantine, 225 pages, $31)

Most business books focus on success, seeking the elusive formula that can help people and companies find victories. But in Rebounders, American journalist Rick Newman looks at failures, and how they led to later success.

Setbacks can be secret weapons, argues Mr. Newman, chief business correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine. Often the pivotal points in success stories aren't the breakthrough moments when everything fell into place but the "quit points" that came before, when everything seemed in doubt.

"Many people give up when they hit such quit points – and you never hear their stories, because they don't accomplish much. For those who persist, however, those low moments of fear and failure often constitute a crucible that makes them more capable once they've endured it," he writes.

He contrasts rebounders with wallowers. Wallowers get rattled when something goes wrong because they aren't accustomed to solving their own problems. They complain, blame others, rarely question their own judgment, overestimate their abilities, and fail to move on. They wallow, often repeating their mistakes because of a failure to analyze the problem accurately and adjust.

Mr. Newman identifies Richard Fuld, former chief executive officer of Lehman Brothers, as a wallower, demonstrated by his congressional testimony blaming everyone but himself for his company's implosion.

Rebounders bounce back from adversity because their skill set allows them to analyze situations, understand how they have contributed to the difficulties, and recalibrate.

"Rebounders know how to solve problems and overcome setbacks, often because they've done it before. …So they tend to react with calm determination, and even a sense of humour, when something goes wrong. They'd rather solve problems than complain about them or blame someone else," he writes.

Each chapter introduces readers to a rebounder (many of them little-known) and uses their stories to offer useful lessons. The author offers nine attributes that are key to making the shift from failure to success:

1. Rebounders accept failure: They hate to fail, but they accept it, and try to fail productively, learning from the experience, as the inventive Thomas Edison did with his many failed experiments.

2. Rebounders compartmentalize options: They are often emotional people, with drive and passion. John Bogle, who founded Vanguard Group, was furious when he was pushed out of a previous job and even had revenge fantasies. But he didn't spend time trying to get even. Rebounders control the emotional fallout of their struggle.

3. Rebounders have a bias toward action: After Tammy Duckworth lost both legs when her U.S. military helicopter was shot down in Iraq, her first impulse was to get to work at rehabilitation and her new life. Rebounders keep pushing, keep doing.

4. Rebounders change their minds: They can discard old thinking, give up on long-held dreams, and adjust their ambitions to evolving situations. They don't cling to ideas that are proving hopeless.

5. Rebounders prepare for things to go wrong: They don't expect things to go their own way. They are cautious optimists, always aware their plans may go awry.

6. Rebounders are comfortable with discomfort: They are willing to accept hardships and inconveniences as long as they feel they are getting closer to their goal. Singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams could have signed a major recording deal years earlier if she had agreed to make the songs the music companies wanted, but she stayed true to her own vision, even if it meant often barely having the money to pay her rent.

7. Rebounders are willing to wait: They are determined to succeed on their own terms, and can accept that it might take a long time. "But rebounders don't just wait positively for a lucky break, or do the same thing over and over. They constantly learn and get better, continually improving the likelihood of success until the odds tilt in their favour," Mr. Newman observes.

8. Rebounders have heroes: Many of the rebounders he met are romantics, seeing their role as in some way historic, and they are entranced by some mentor or historical figure who they want to emulate. Vanguard's Mr. Bogle, for example, often alluded to the naval battles of Admiral Lord Nelson and named his mutual fund company after his hero's ship.

9. Rebounders have more than passion: We are told we need passion for success, but rebounders realize it requires more than that. They have a special drive and resilience that allows them to capitalize on their passion.

The lessons provide helpful takeaways for readers. But in focusing on them, I may be distorting the nature of the book. It's primarily storytelling, by a gifted writer and interviewer, who has found the experiences of some fascinating, inspirational rebounders to share. It is the stories as much as the lessons – or mingled with the lessons – that makes for an enchanting book that will linger in readers' minds.

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