Why leadership is not about being right

Why leadership is not about being right

One of Amazon’s Leadership Principles states that leaders “Are Right, A Lot!”

This is a destructive principle and probably a major contributor to why many Amazon employees find the company a difficult place to work.

Here’s why:

Leaders become rigid and defensive when they believe they must be right

The big problem with a leadership principle that says “Leaders are Right, a Lot,” is that it suggests that if your decision doesn’t turn out well you’re not a leader, or at least not a good one.

It fosters an environment where people in leadership positions will go to great lengths to be right.

This includes working extra-hard and long with no real vacations, suppressing or ignoring contradictory information, and bullying colleagues or sub-ordinates to support the decision.  All conditions that reportedly exist at Amazon.

Photo by The U.S. National Archives
Photo by The U.S. National Archives

Such a principle brings out the Dick Cheney in any leader.   Indeed the leaders in such organisations tend to be alpha personalities.

Amazon may think some of their other leadership principles counteract this e.g. “Have backbone: Disagree and Commit,” but they won’t with alpha leaders who are likely to make it quite clear what happens to people who dissent.

Spells unhealthy workplace to me and worse, it feeds an environment where terrible decisions (like the Iraq war) are made because leaders are invested in being “right.”

Leaders commit to making decisions work out well

The phenomena at work when leaders make “right” decisions is not that it was the best decision possible, but rather that leaders make a powerfully well-informed choice and devote all of their resources from that moment on to making that decision work.

Leaders don’t spend their time second-guessing their decisions, and this makes all the difference to a successful outcome.  Think of Bill Gates’ decision to license the MS-Dos operating system, vs. Steve Jobs’ decision to do just the opposite for Apple.   Which was “right”?

The powerful leadership trait is not knowing the right decision, but committing to make a decision work out as best it can.   They don’t worry about whether it was the right one yet they remain open to changing direction when the marketplace changes.  And because they are not invested in being ‘right’ leaders can more readily make radical  course corrections if the situation requires. fe059016b311bda6_1280_all-roads-lead-to-rome

Most people are not good at this and spend their time worrying about whether they made the right decision; which distracts them from their goal.

Many leaders are clearly not right

Hitler, Mao and Stalin were clearly not right, and even the revered Steve Jobs was not right about every decision.  Steve Jobs famously said no to styluses and to renting music.  Apple is now embracing both.

Recommendation for you

The lesson for you is to practice committing to your decisions once you make them.  Work on your decision-making process so you’re confident you have a good one, take the decision and then work to make it right.   Trust yourself and your ability to make your decision work.

From the moment you make your decision, move from strategic mode to execution mode.  Give up worrying about your decision being right or the best decision; just work towards making your decision work out as best it can.  But of course remain open to changing direction if conditions change.

Photo by Trishhhh
All roads lead to Rome.


Recommendation for Amazon

Amazon can remove a contributing factor to their “bruising workplace culture” by simple eliminating the principle “Leaders are right, a lot.”

They lose nothing by simply eliminating it given the strengths of their remaining principles.

I would recommend eliminating “Leaders are Right, A Lot,” and adapting the principle “Bias for Action” with the following:

Leaders Act and Adapt, Quickly.  Leaders are biased towards swift and decisive action.  They do not second guess decisions yet remain open to changing direction when new situations arise.

Even if Amazon doesn’t use it, it’s a good leadership principle for you to adopt.

Photo by jurvetson

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.