Would Your Leadership Style Fit At Amazon?
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
By now, I’m guessing everyone’s read the New York Times piece about Amazon. And you’ve no doubt tuned in to at least some of the debate about the comprehensiveness of that article. But what no one is directly talking about, and what we should be talking about, is leadership styles. How you lead is what’s really at the heart of all the buzz around this article. Because while we realistically know that only a few leaders will ever create the kind of success that Jeff Bezos churns out over at Amazon, most leaders are trying hard to be one of those few.
My research has resulted in the classification of four basic leadership styles…
- The Pragmatist.This leader sets high standards and unapologetically expects those standards to be met by themselves and by their employees. Pragmatists are driven and competitive and, above all else, they value hitting their goals.
- The Idealist.This leader is a high-energy achiever who believes in the positive potential of everyone around them. Idealists want to learn and grow, and they want everyone else on the team to do the same.
- The Steward.This leader is dependable, loyal and helpful, and is the rock of the organization. Stewards value rules, process and cooperation, and they provide a stabilizing and calming force for their employees.
- The Diplomat.This leader prizes interpersonal harmony and is the social glue and affiliative force that keeps groups together. Diplomats are kind, social, and giving, and they typically build deep personal bonds with their employees.
Which of these four leadership styles best describes how you lead? This free leadership styles assessment will help you decide. (For an in-depth description of the four leadership styles, read my FORBES article from last month: “Which Of These 4 Leadership Styles Are You?“)
Based on what we know about Amazon, I think it’s safe to conclude that the Pragmatist style of leadership is pretty popular. For starters, one of the big hallmarks of the Pragmatist is having really high standards. And appearing at number six on Amazon’s list of 14 Leadership Principles, we find “Insist on the Highest Standards.” Here’s how Amazon defines that Principle…
“Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.”
A results-first approach is another hallmark of the Pragmatist leadership style. This means that if an employee has a really stupid idea, the Pragmatist won’t sugarcoat that fact. They’ll say it like it is. Working for Pragmatists can be rewarding, but the challenges can be really tough. Unlike some other leadership styles, where we find leaders who might give figurative trophies for work-life balance or fostering harmony, the Pragmatist tends to want blood, sweat and sometimes even tears before they’ll even consider bestowing anything resembling a trophy.
The New York Times article references Jeff Bezos’ 1997 Letter to Shareholders. In that letter, Jeff basically writes the mission statement for Pragmatists:
“It’s not easy to work here (when I interview people I tell them, “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three”), but we are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy. We are incredibly fortunate to have this group of dedicated employees whose sacrifices and passion build Amazon.com.”
Here’s another way to think about it. Peek out your office door and take a good look at your employees. With the exception of a few royal pains, you’ve likely got a nice group of people. By and large, they do good work, they get along with you and each other, and they’re generally well intentioned. Given all this, it’s not surprising that lot of leaders feel pretty satisfied with their team.
But the Pragmatist doesn’t do satisfied. This leader takes a harder look out that office door while asking tough questions such as: Are my employees giving 100%? Are they pushing themselves to their limits and beyond? Are they dripping blood, sweat and tears to achieve greatness? When they leave work today, do employees give a fist pump and exclaim “Dang, we’re good? We rocked today’s challenges and came through like champs!” Or do they shuffle out while muttering, “Another day, another dollar”? For Pragmatists, the latter sounds a death knell.
Of all four of the leadership styles, the Pragmatist typically pushes themselves and their employees the hardest. (Again, this free leadership styles assessment will help you identify your own leadership style). And as Amazon’s growth can testify, this style of leadership can get amazing results. Anyone who’s ever had a tough-but-caring coach or teacher push them hard until they achieved big results knows what this leadership style can do. And most of us can look back at our great accomplishments in life and identify a difficult goal that led us there. A goal that demanded moving outside our comfort zone and that held some trepidation. The Pragmatist can’t help but approach leadership with this mindset. So if you like taking on really challenging goals, and the huge accomplishments that result, then the Pragmatist is often a good leadership style to get you there.
Of course, there is a potential downside. It can be tiring to strive for greatness all the time. Around 500,000 people run marathons every year. Maybe you’ve done it yourself and you’ve felt the sense of accomplishment that finishing a marathon delivers. But it’s hard work, the training is tough, and not everyone has what it takes to go back for more. For these folks it’s the ‘One and I’m Done’ club. They cross marathon off their bucket list and they don’t go back for more. Only a select group of folks will train and race again and again: ten, twenty, or more marathons in a lifetime. Similarly, the Pragmatist always goes back for more. The Pragmatist leadership style works at Amazon, and it may work for you, but it isn’t for everyone. And that’s OK.
Whatever your leadership style is, the Pragmatist, the Idealist, the Steward or the Diplomat, it’s going to have detractors and it’s going to have fans. That’s part of what’s causing all the hoopla over the Amazon article. But there’s nothing inherently good or bad in any of the four leadership styles. There’s only what’s good and bad for you and your organization. So while it’s fun to join the debate over the Amazon article, the real question the New York Times article forces us to examine is: do I have what it takes to be the kind of leader that fits in my particular organization?
Mark Murphy is NY Times bestselling author, Founder of Leadership IQ, a sought-after speaker, and creator of the leadership styles assessment.