How Executives Fail: A book of Recipes

As Charlie Brown put it so memorably, "How can we fail when we’re so sincere?"

Those are the opening words of Lee Thayer’s soon to be released book, How Executives Fail and Fail to See How They’re Failing. My name is Yvonne DiVita and I’m Lee’s publisher. When Rosa asked if I would participate in her month long learning forum, my first thought was, "What can I write that will be really useful and effective? After, all I’m still learning this management, CEO stuff myself." Lee_thayer

While still contemplating what I could contribute, I opened Lee’s latest chapter of How Executives Fail and began editing it. As I was making my minor edits, I realized that I had the answer to my dilemma right in front of me. I could share Lee Thayer’s book – his advice – his recipe for failure, which is really just an upside-down way of looking at how to succeed. So, I sent an email off to Lee to ask permission, and…luckily for all of us, he agreed – after all, he’s busy preparing his own blog so… he’s eager to read others’ blogs in the meantime.

Let me tell you a little bit about Lee Thayer, so you understand WHY I feel his book is worth talking about. And why I think you’ll learn something from these select bits taken from the book.

Lee is one of the smartest people I know. I don’t say that because he was wise enough to choose WME Books to publish How Executives Fail, although that’s one reason. I say he’s one of the smartest people I know because of his career as a "pioneer and influential innovator in the design and evelopment of high-performance organizations." To continue quoting from his bio, "It has often been observed that he has rattled more CEO’s cages than anyone else."

If you ever have the pleasure to meet Lee, you will find him frank, pointed, opinionated, and wise beyond most people’s comprehension. He’s likeable and friendly, too. And…though I’m not sure he knows it – very funny. Here are just a few excerpts from his book, to help you in your quest to fail – which, really, is a quest for success. Read on and take notes, and remember – one of Lee’s major goals is to make you uncomfortable, for it’s our nature to ‘fix’ things that make us uncomfortable.

I hope you contemplate what’s shared here, think it over carefully, recognize those areas that really apply to you – then do something about them:

From the Introduction: "Most managers and executives are quite confused. They fell into their roles not fully understanding that they are never the sole cause of any "success" they might have. At the same time, most of them didn’t fully understand that they are personally responsible for their own failure, as much as they are for their own success. If, in short, they don’t know how to fail, then they do not know how to succeed, since these are two aspects of the same thing."

From Chapter One: "How to Breed Failure from Success"

People cling to the "theory" of success as they’ve created it. And reject the possibility of any culpability for their failures. Even a small success goes to one’s head. We cling to it, like a child clings to her magical, comforting blanket. Try taking that ragged old blanket away from her and see what happens – the little angel will turn into a ferocious devil! That’s the way failing executives cling to their ‘theories.’ The lesson: Failing on purpose is noble. Failing by default is the clod’s way out.

From Chapter Seven: "How to Be Tolerant of Those Who Can’t…or Won’t"

We’ve all been told that tolerance is a virtue. But it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish, doesn’t it? An athlete or a musician who is too tolerant of his or her last performance is never going to make it to the top. A rock climber who is too tolerant of his or her carelessness last time on the cliff, may end up being an ex-climber. As an unknown wag put it, "The trouble with being tolerant is that people will think you don’t understand the problem." In effect, tolerance of sloth, incompetence, or under-engagement, whether those characteristics are yours or others’, will provide all kinds of productive forces to ensure your failure. Somerset Maugham put it thusly, "Tolerance is only another name for indifference."

From Chapter Twenty: "How to Play the ‘Explanation Game’"

IF I tell you something I know, but don’t fully comprehend, and which may be irrelevant to what either of us needs to know, if we knew what that was…

AND, if you tell me something you know, without any real thought about whether or not it is relevant to what I need to know… if I knew what that was…

AND IF we repeat what we’ve told each other to several other people…

THEN…we have created what is called a "network" or an "informal organization." Forget the organization chart. In organizations like yours, this what’s said becomes gospel for the organization’s functioning.

Winston Churchill was once asked the question, "What are the desirable qualifications for any young man who wishes to become a politician?"

Churchill replied, "It is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen."

He could have been talking about executives, or maybe all of us, couldn’t he? You should certainly reward the creativity put into excuses for why something that was supposed to get done didn’t get done. That way, you can have lots of laughs while you fail for lack of accomplishments. The moral? You must appreciate people (beginning with yourself) not for their accomplishments, but for their ability to "explain" away their failures. The better you can do this, the sooner you will fail.

I think that’s enough Lee Thayer. These are but a few paragraphs taken from several chapters in the How Executives Fail book. This book, as Lee says in his introduction, "…is not going to change the world. The many thousands of managers out there who could profit from it don’t know they need it because they haven’t yet seen it. It’s a word-of-mouth kind of book. I think this will appeal to the typical executive, who doesn’t really read that many books, because they’ll see it as a great gift book to mail or hand to peers. They’ll like the irony, and back-room humor."

I also want to share his words on why he wrote this book.

"To qualify a bit of why I wrote this book, let me tell you that I’ve been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I’ve been a CEO, I’ve been around people in the CEO’s role for more than forty-five years. I’ve conducted seminars for many hundreds of CEOs on this planet. They are my friends, my colleagues, my fellow-travelers…and I know that none of them, these people on whom so much of our future depends, wants to fail. So, this book is not really about how to fail. It’s about taking this tongue-in-cheek approach, assuming a position of irony, and grasping a great many useful ideas about how to actually avoid failing." Lee Thayer

Lee is in the business of developing world-class leaders. This book is but one approach. When it comes to leaders and leadership, there are dozens of definitions – which I will not try to fit in this post that is already too long. But, I have learned, from Lee and others, that being a leader is about achievement. It’s founded in accomplishment. I offer this parting comment: will you fail to succeed, or will you succeed to fail? More importantly, do you know what the difference is?

Questions regarding Lee’s book and the release date may be directed to me, Yvonne Divita. I welcome your thoughts about this post.

Yvonne DiVita is the author of Lip-Sticking, Smart Marketing to Women Online. She is a professional writer and publisher, out to change how the world markets to women online, and in her spare time, she is dedicated to helping authors self-publish via print-on-demand technology.


  1. says

    There is plenty to chew on in this posting. I could comment on a few different things but I think I’ll take the “If …, And …, And if …, Then …” quote this time. This factor is indeed crucial to the success of any group. While it serves to bring the group together in this instance, it can also break a group apart. It has been called many things; corporate culture, the buzz, the mindset, the story… the seeds of it bring the group together. We have witnessed (and participated) this month as many seeds of thought were planted and exchanged here in this community bringing us together in a special way.
    Yvonne, thanks indeed for sharing. Thanks also to Lee for allowing this to occur. I know there is a new book on my “to read list” now. When his blog is ready, can you let us know?

  2. says

    What a treat to get an early preview of Lee’s book Yvonne! A big mahalo to you both!
    My, how management has stayed the same, and yet changed so much. This whole train of thought, of knowing how to fail in a right way, was completely foreign to me, and I daresay to all of my peers, throughout most of my career. Failing happened of course, but the mindset we were groomed in at the time was that failure was never an option, and you did all you possibly could to avoid it.
    Today, I can see the wisdom in these statements, “Failing on purpose is noble. Failing by default is the clod’s way out.” Lately however, I encounter so much hand-wringing on the lack of work ethic running rampant in business today, that I must wonder if we need more of the “try, and try again; if you fall, keep getting up” prodding, coaching people to simply be more resilient and tenacious. I find I may be coming full circle in preferring to coach more persistence, and the aversion to failure. Therefore, I was very happy to get toward the end of your article to read that Lee explained, “”this book is not really about how to fail. It’s about taking this tongue-in-cheek approach, assuming a position of irony, and grasping a great many useful ideas about how to actually avoid failing.”
    It is those “useful ideas” we need, so Lee, bring ‘em on!

  3. says

    The excerpt from Lee’s book that ends in the following sentence really struck home to me. “If, in short, they don’t know how to fail, then they do not know how to succeed, since these are two aspects of the same thing.”
    Like so much in life, its hard to appreciate what you have without experiencing the opposite. Winning/losing, close relationships/loneliness, wealth/poverty, joy/sadness, and success/failure.
    Once someone comes to grips with failing, and acknowledges thier role in the outcome, then a Rosa suggests, they can then start anew to achieve an improved outcome.
    Good stuff, Yvonne. Thanks for sharing!

  4. says

    Thank you Yvonne, you have certainly whetted my appetite for this book! I can see there’s much accumulated wisdom that will be on those pages, and I always like an approach that can put the tongue in the cheek but yet bring points forcefully home. Can I assume I can pre-order it on Amazon? All the best.