Summing up the essence of the Jeff Bezos’ leadership style in one sentence is difficult.
The career of Jeff Bezos has spanned several decades, including Amazon’s founding in Seattle in 1994. One of the most infamous figures in modern American business, Jeff Bezos has blazed an innovative and sometimes controversial path. It’s no surprise he’s ended up with a unique take on how to run a large company.
You can describe the Jeff Bezos leadership style as transformational, experimental, and long-term oriented. Here’s a quick look at what each of those means:
The leadership style of Amazon reflects the autocratic, long-term thinking of its leader, Jeff Bezos. Some in Amazon’s leadership report that Bezos enforces this culture with a highly demanding, ambitious environment. It’s then up to Amazon’s leaders to live up to this culture. As Brad Stone reported, those in Amazon’s leadership who don’t share a “conquer-the-world” mantra in some form tend to frustrate Bezos.
Amazon’s leadership team also reports that Bezos has created an emphasis on objective truth. This means that Amazon focuses not on its internal opinions, but on the facts borne out in the marketplace. There have even been some complaints about the competitive and even toxic work environment, as well. Bezos’s allegedly blunt style can rub some people the wrong way.
In Amazon’s own words, they emphasize values like customer obsession, a commitment to the highest standards, and thinking “big.” Each of these individual values stems from the personality of its founder.
Defining leadership by results, it’s clear that Jeff Bezos has had a transformational impact on Amazon and the American economy as a whole. The success of Amazon is due in large part to Bezos’s ability to choose, nurture, and enforce a vision of Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace.
That success is also due to some of Bezos’ specific traits, such as:
One thing is clear about Jeff Bezos: he didn't waste time shooting for second place. He sets gigantic, perhaps even borderline delusional goals—and then gets to work trying to achieve them. Going back to his last shareholder letter, Bezos addressed the complaints about Amazon’s employee issues by saying he wants to set a goal of being the “Earth’s best employer.”
“Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” writes AboutAmazon.com. This reflects the leadership style of Jeff Bezos: he would rather set large goals and set about designing the experiments that lead to innovation, rather than setting small goals and never accomplishing much.
Amazon calls it a “bias for action.” It reflects Bezos’s emphasis on speed, an obsession that has gone back several decades. This is reflected in some of the sentences in Bezos’s very first job ad for Amazon, back in the mid-1990s:
“You must have experience designing and building large and complex (yet maintainable) systems, and you should be able to do so in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.”
Bezos’s personal obsession with speed spread throughout the company. One of its guiding principles continues to be speedy, consistent delivery for its customers. Amazon Prime offers the now-famous two-day delivery that has changed customer expectations forever.
Jeff Bezos’s leadership style makes him especially suited for creating a company with the transformative power of Amazon. Consider all of the roadblocks along the way. Even in 1997, when Amazon was looking like a successful venture (but still competing with the book-selling behemoth of Barnes and Noble), Bezos continued to get bad advice about the directions he should take Amazon.
As Ben Carlson noted on Twitter, Bezos was visiting the Harvard Business School and getting feedback from students. One of them even told Bezos:
“You seem like a really nice guy, so don’t take this the wrong way. But you really need to sell to Barnes and Noble and get out now.”
At the time, the advice might have seemed prudent. Bezos was already sitting on a pile of wealth from the success of Amazon. Selling to a competitor would have been a way to cash in on Bezos’s achievements.
But Bezos had bigger things in mind. Amazon went public that same year. If an investor had taken the opposite advice from that student and purchased $10,000 Amazon stock when it went public, that same stock would be worth more than $12 million by 2020.
The autocratic leadership style Bezos employs might rub some people the wrong way. He ignores advice when he doesn’t consider it valid. Needless to say, he ignored that student’s advice. But through it all, his bullish charge through the dot-com bubble is the reason why Amazon is what it is today. One of the largest companies in the world, Amazon now employs millions of people in a global infrastructure network that far exceeded Amazon’s initial conception as a book-seller.
Given what we know about Jeff Bezos’s leadership style, it seems like the best way to found a company is to ignore all advice, assume you’re right, and charge ahead. But that’s not truly the approach Bezos has taken over the years.
Bezos has succeeded by emphasizing the value he delivers to customers, for starters. And his obsession with traits like speedy delivery has given those same customers a reason to keep coming back to Amazon. Bezos has created a culture of achievement at Amazon. This sometimes rubs some leadership the wrong way, and it hasn’t always made Amazon the paragon of employee satisfaction. But as Amazon continues to improve, many of the systems they have in place may still win out.
You don’t have to adopt every one of Jeff Bezos’s traits to succeed in your own business. But you can pick and choose the ones that work best for you:
Jeff Bezos quote: “If you double the number of experiments you do per year you’re going to double your inventiveness.”
Relevant F4S motivations:
One reason Bezos succeeds so often is that he can see the big picture. One small failure on the road to an overwhelming goal doesn’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things.
Bezos advises doubling the number of experiments you do per year because he realizes that it’s not about failures and successes—it’s about the lessons learned along the way. If one experiment is better than no experiments, then two must be better than one.
It’s that kind of forward-thinking innovation that eventually led Amazon to triumph over Barnes and Noble.
Jeff Bezos Quote: “What we want to be is something completely new. There is no physical analog for what Amazon.com is becoming.”
Relevant F4S motivations:
Go back to Bezos’s visit to Harvard Business School in 1997. At the time, it seemed that Amazon had hit an upper limit—that’s why a student was telling him to sell to Barnes and Noble. Cash-out now, while the price for Amazon is high, and you’ll never regret it.
But Bezos doesn’t think that way. He’s said he’d rather take the actions that he wouldn’t regret at the age of 80. And those actions, he says, are usually the ones that explore the risks you wish you’d taken.
When Bezos started Amazon, he was already working in a lucrative career with a good employment situation. No one would have faulted him if he stuck to that path. Most would have recommended it. But ultimately, says Bezos, “I didn’t think I’d regret trying and failing. And I suspected I would always be haunted by a decision to not try at all.”
Jeff Bezos Quote: “Part of company culture is path-dependent – it’s the lessons you learn along the way.”
Relevant F4S motivations:
In his own company statements, Bezos has addressed the issues at Amazon, especially as it comes to media stories about employee working conditions. But to Bezos, this isn’t the final round of the fight. He believes that a company’s culture is an evolving work in progress—and if you don’t get it right the first time, there’s no reason you can’t adjust and keep going.
Though Bezos’s autocratic leadership style sometimes makes him sound like an iron-handed dictator, he’s willing to adjust his approach if he can see the tangible benefits. Amazon’s company culture has matched the style of its leader: it’s been ambitious, single-minded, and determined to change the world.
There’s plenty to admire in Jeff Bezos’s leadership style. There’s also plenty to question. But it’s clear that he’s had the persistence and determination to shape Amazon in the vision he has for it.
Over time, Amazon has taken on those personality traits, continuing to innovate, increase its speed to the customer, and consume a larger portion of the retail market. Considering where Amazon was just twenty-five years ago, that’s saying a lot about Bezos’s leadership style and what it can achieve.
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