walking the leadership talk

I was a speaker at Amazon’s Global Learning Day in 2016 and one thing that struck me was how often one of the 14 principles of leadership would crop up in regular conversations I had during my three days in Seattle. As this event was focused on learning, someone made up stickers for principle #5 — Learn and Be Curious.

“This is perhaps the most important Amazon leadership principle as it sets the foundation of the entire business structure. Leaders are never satisfied with their product, the word, ‘perfect’ is not in their dictionary. It’s curiosity which helps them to achieve new feats. They are never done learning and always look to improve themselves. They are curious to know all the possibilities and acts to explore them. They are never satisfied at any point in their business development which makes them interesting. Some example questions from amazon leadership principles in this regard are: Tell me about a time when you:

Solved a problem through just greater knowledge or observation?
Influenced a change by only asking questions?
Went through that changed your way of thinking?
Curiosity helped you make a smarter decision?

and:

Tell me about the most significant and imperative lesson you learned in the past year from your experience?”
Louis Carter

The origin of the principles is supposedly from 1998 when Amazon bought two other companies. I was impressed that everyone was using these principles as they worked on projects, decided on priorities, and made plans. Having clearly articulated principles is one thing, keeping to them is another. It’s an ongoing conversation within the current context of the company. For instance, the year before, the New York Times published — Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.

“Let me explain. Consider Amazon’s 14 ‘leadership principles’, tenets of action and behaviour expected of every single employee and written by Mr. Bezos himself. They certainly sound inspirational and effective – who could fail to agree with ‘Customer Obsession’, ‘Invent and Simplify’ or ‘Learn and Be Curious’? These are attitudes that any CEO would want to see in his people.

Then there is the last of the 14 principles: ‘Deliver Results’. How could anyone disagree with that? But ‘Deliver Results’ is exactly the root of the problem here. Focusing on results, the ‘what’, cannot be successful unless you also sufficiently consider the ‘how’. …

But somewhere along the way, as the company grew in size, managers in the organization became so focused on results that they lost sight of how they were obtained and the people who made these results happen, those who are the proverbial wind beneath the wings. And when a disproportionate emphasis on results is combined with a vigorous smattering of ‘Disagree and Commit’ (another principle), a toxic work environment is created. Empathy is discouraged while hostility and sabotage become accepted.”
Globe & Mail 2015-08-25

My own guidelines on leadership are fewer than fourteen.

  1. There is only one way to lead — by example.
  2. Leadership is helping make the network smarter, more resilient, and able to make better decisions.
  3. Cooperation is the optimal behaviour in a knowledge network, and this calls for new forms of leadership in our institutions and organizations.
  4. Our crisis in leadership today is a failure to understand complexity.

Principles have a cost, or they would not be principles, merely statements you agree with. This makes them difficult to keep when they bump up against someone’s bottom line. Choose principles wisely. Adhere to them like they matter — they do.

lead by example

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