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.
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 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 therefore represents the foundation on which you can create, invent and simplify.
Leaders Are Right, A Lot
There is no right or wrong, since there exists no absolute truth. What can be right for you may not be right for someone else. Being right leads to judgement against others who you think are wrong (“us versus them”), which can lead to unnecessary fights (just look at all the wars on this planet). Fighting closes the mind, instead of keeping it open for new ideas and creative flow.
Instead of thinking that leaders are right a lot, it might makes more sense to think that especially more senior leaders have plenty of experience, which can serve them well to identify ways that are being helpful, possibly faster and more effective than you can be. As always it is useful to reflect on and challenge everything, as nobody is perfect and your idea may be even better for serving a specific purpose. In that case the concept of “disagree and commit” comes in handy, as it may otherwise stall the organization or slow things down too much if there are ongoing debates and no decision. The leader needs to eventually make a call and decide on the direction. You should support it regardless of your opinion. If the decisions made by a company however do not align with your own principles or values and therefore you cannot successfully contribute, it is best to leave.
It is crucial to become aware of the judgements, biases and flaws in your own thoughts that you believe are true but indeed are not. These, if not discovered, may cause a lot of stress, pain and suffering for yourself and others.
Hire and develop the Best
Don’t become arrogant.Treat everyone with the same respect - coaching work can pay off substantially in unexpected ways! Someone you may think is currently not the „best“ may invent the next big disruptive technology. Therefore, keep an open mind during the hiring, coaching or performance evaluation processes, and look for potential bias in your thoughts. If people are working in a purposeful environment, which is aligned with their individual beliefs, they will naturally perform better than those who are not as invested in the standards of the firm.
Insist on the Highest Standards
Watch out for your urge to do things “perfectly”. Realize that the idea of how something could be perfect is just that- an idea of yours. Find out what really is “good enough” and deliver it accordingly. I‘m not saying you should deliver mediocre work. You have to make the trade-off decision to determine when extra work will result only in minimal impact. That is usually the time when you have reached a “good enough” state. Why is this important? Perfectionism will eventually lead to frustration and will make you miserable. If you are miserable, there is a high chance that you will pass on this negative energy to others and make their life miserable. Also apply this mindset of „good enough“ to yourself as well as to the work of others. Recognize the effort others have made and do not set impossible goals that nobody can ever reach for the sake of over-ambition, another embodiment of perfectionism.
Bias for Action
Ensure first that prior to action you had a chance to reflect whether something is actually worth doing. Then, if action is appropriate, go forward and apply it in a respectful way. In favor of speed, we may otherwise overrun others, or rush into things prematurely. First achieve clarity on your action. I recommend for anything which you cannot explain in 3-5 sentences that you should write down a 1-pager to achieve clarity on your thoughts. To sum up:
2) Achieve Clarity
4) Apply mindful action
Beware of greed, fame, and fortune. We are often asked to “do more with less”. In general this is a healthy thinking to be conscious about the resources we use. However, it can lead quickly into “being greedy“ and having unrealistic expectations. For example, if you have high expectations (or even over-achieving thoughts) and then your project manager tells you after thorough analysis it takes 3 months and 3 people to build it, and you challenge that and ask for 1 month and 1 person because of “cost efficiency” and optimizing your profit. A good rule of thumb is that if you do something to maximize your benefits it is usually driven by the ego. I recommend then to question the underlying thought and validate whether this is really true. Find a good balance when developing a frugal mindset and watch out for your ego trying to maximize profit by taking advantage of others.
Don’t micromanage - it is helpful (and important) for a leader to be detail oriented, but notice that there is a fine line between being curious of details and micromanaging someone, which is a form of trying to monopolize control over their actions (which does not work). It is ok to learn as much as possible about the problems of your customer and team, brainstorm with them on possible solutions and staying on top of the execution by looking at KPIs regularly and providing feedback. But resist the urge to control others. Instead instill a shared vision and purpose into your team. This is like planting seeds. Then lay back and watch the seeds grow and blossom. Gradually develop this type of inspirational management style as your default way of leading others.
Make sure whether it is helpful to deliver these results:
1) Are they aligned with your purpose?
2) Do they solve a real customer problem?
Also there is the danger becoming too much result obsessed to develop a tunnel vision, which will prevent you from looking at the bigger picture and keeping enough awareness on how you treat and interact with those around you. Otherwise you may justify actions that are not mindful for the sake of delivering results, which may cause suffering and pain for everyone involved. Therefore, always be mindful of your words and actions while working on delivering results.
To sum up:
Amazon leadership principles have a strong bias towards delivering peak performance fast, and are promoting a very competitive mindset. The downside them is that some of these principles may create a culture that is promoting the growth of the ego by getting too focused on the results and less on how they are achieved (i.e. creating a purposeful and mindful work environment where people really like to spend their day and can grow). We therefore need mindful leaders aware of the potential pitfalls, who help others to also become aware of those problems. I recommend combining Amazon’s leadership principles with a mindset cultivated by the Mindfulness Leadership Principles for the best results.