Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Mistakes as a Source of Innovation

with 4 comments

Jeff Bezos - Amazon.com

Effective leaders adhered to an unalterable expectation that mistakes and failure need to be an acceptable part of the process of innovation. They opposed “zero tolerance for mistakes” policies, many of which are still being practiced in many companies today. They considered these to be hindrances to innovation.

“It’s easy to believe that Jeff Bezos is one of the great innovators. But that’s not exactly the case. His rise into Fortune 500-dom actually has little to do with innovation and more to do with iteration. If anything, Amazon demonstrates how a cutting-edge Internet company – of all things – can succeed slowly. The trick is taking a million tiny steps – and quickly learning from your missteps.” [1]

The mega-inventors of the 19th Century are also prime examples of this philosophy. “[George] Westinghouse (Westinghouse) built on his engineering skills, learning how to design and evaluate industrial trials. Time after time he turned trial failures into commercial successes. Even his competitors hailed his problem solving skills…” [2] “[Thomas] Edison (Edison Electric) viewed even disasters as an opportunity for learning. On one occasion his lab stove went out in the dead of winter, causing an assortment of expensive chemicals to freeze. On another occasion unprotected chemicals were damaged by sunlight. Instead of bemoaning the losses, Edison put aside all other projects to catalogue changes in the properties of the bottled substances… ‘He knew how to turn lemons into lemonade.’[3]

Walt Disney (Disney) took a proactive approach toward mistakes. “Walt found a way to push improvement without laying blame. [He] take(s) a look at what [someone says]… not glossing over a problem with the gag. He implicitly acknowledges it could be better. But rather than indulge an employee’s criticism of another worker, he demands a positive, forward-thinking attitude – ‘what we can do to make it better…’ Walt kept employees engaged and contributing by not shooting down suggestions, but instead steering employees toward improving their ideas… Walt’s approach to suggestions as the difference between responding ‘Yes, if…’ or ‘No, because…’ [4]

As Sam Walton grew Wal-Mart into a retailing giant, he realized that “not all of his ideas worked. The minnow buckets didn’t sell. People in Wisconsin didn’t go for his Moon Pies. But when he saw he was wrong, he admitted his mistake and went on to try something else. And he wanted his associates to be the same way. He’d get them together on Saturday mornings to share their success and admit their failures. That culture of candor produced a great environment to capture ideas. It helped that he had ‘very little capacity for embarrassment.’[5]


[1]  Quittner Josh, The Charming Life of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (Fortune Magazine, April 15, 2008)

[2]  Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr., George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius (Algora Publishing, New York, 2007) p. 61

[3]  McAuliffe Kathleen, The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison (Atlantic Magazine, December 1995)

[4]  Niles Robert, Disney Legends Recall Walt Disney and the ‘Yes, It…. Way of Management (Theme Park Insider, November 19, 2009)

[5]  Walton Sam Made in America. A Money Book Summary (character-education.info)

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2012)

If you would like to learn more about the power of innovation displayed by the great American leaders through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

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Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web | Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2012 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

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Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

February 21, 2012 at 10:53 am

4 Responses

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  1. Good article Tim. People need to learn from their mistakes and to move forward and not give up.

    Stella Pridon

    February 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm

  2. You gave such a nice post on leadership skills. I find this post very informative and helpful to me, many thanks for sharing this information with us.

    leadership skills

    February 27, 2012 at 5:34 am

  3. […] Related: Mistakes as a Source of Innovation […]

  4. […] Related: Mistakes as a Source of Innovation […]


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