Beware of the Ego when Adopting Amazon’s Leadership Principles

Updated: Mar 4, 2020


Amazon’s Leadership Principles have been quite successful to their business after their introduction a few years ago. As mentioned in “The Mindfulness Leadership Principles”, these principles from Amazon help organizations to create concentrated focus to become an "execution engine." However, there is a danger that a non-mindful leadership approach to these principles can result in the empowerment of leaders’ egos. Too often this results in needless power games, unnecessary stress and frustration among employees.


Amazon’s leadership principles can be summarized as “working very hard to creating the necessary long-term focus to deliver quality results with speed, and ensuring the company culture is supporting this in a healthy way by enabling trust & innovation, open respectful communication, and growing talent to high standards.”


This may seem like a great recipe for business success at first glance, but Amazon’s method of leadership can have dangerous implications. To illustrate this danger and in order to get a flavor of things that can happen to a company’s culture when implementing these principles with a lack of mindfulness, I recommend reading this New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling big ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” Just skimming through some of the paragraphs should be sufficient to notice a variety of problems that describe, in some cases, a very toxic work environment.


Examples of some of the leadership principles like „insist on highest standards“ seem reasonable on the surface. Why would you deliver something of low quality to your customer anyway? While the intentions of these principles are certainly worthwhile, the problem is the underlying mindset used when applying them in your work environment on a daily basis. If not implemented carefully, they lead to unconstructive suffering within organizations, teams and individuals — which will eventually affect the long-term quality that is being delivered to the customer.


Here are some examples of the dangers that come with these principles and suggestions on how the proposed mindful leadership principles can counteract. You will notice that the real danger lies in the underlying ego which is being rewarded through these measures, and turning sound principles into suffering and pain for everyone involved.


Customer Obsession

Pleasing customers seems to be the most importants goal oftentimes, as it should be. In the meantime though, focus on how you get there and with whom you are involved in order to achieve this goal. Don’t become overly invested in your customer to the point where you forget those around you- your peers, managers or direct reports and never think that the customer is above them. Give everyone around you the same necessary attention and respect. Then, question if your actions directly benefit consumers of your company (internal or external), and if not, reassess them.


Ownership


Ownership is another illusion created by the ego. Believing you “own“ something is a mental concept. For example, you have a dog at home. Reality is that you take care of your dog and entertain it, making it dependent on you to survive, but this does not equate ownership.


An organization is a complex structure where things can get out of hand quickly if you think you own anything and become egoistic. A team, department, or business unit is not an actual object. These are all mental constructs that rely on a common understanding to become collectively cohesive. So thinking that you are an owner of a business unit like “Marketing” requires that everyone in the company has to have the exact same understanding, values and knows the the boundaries to other groups. Most “turf wars” start exactly because of confusion or a lack of clarity around these boundaries. While the mental concept of ownership is intuitively understood, I would recommend replacing the word “ownership” with “caring for” or making it a “stewardship.” Think what would be a helpful contribution to this group of people that adds long-term value - and while doing this, pay close attention not to try increasing “ownership” at all costs for the sake of accumulating power.


Invent and Simplify


Too often we fall in love with our own ideas, and think they will have a positive impact on everybody. Or, we justify creating some useless new technology through the idea that we can, so we should. Think about whether something is truly helpful and worth doing in the first place. We often create too many things nobody wants or needs, and then waste time attempting to optimize it. A good place to start and invest time therefore is to fully understand your customer’s problems and validate them with actual data and insights. This process is sometimes called “product discovery” and t