The Power Behind Amazon’s 14 Principles for Leaders

Leadership sometimes feels like jumping head first into murky, rough waters. With a running start and off a rocky cliff. Being a leader is not about choosing between fillet steak and chocolate cake – it’s about doing the right thing rather than deciding the right thing. Therefore Leadership has a lot to do with actions and not with decisions, which does not make the role any easier. After all, it is easier to decide on a fitness programme than to implement it afterwards. If you have to motivate yourself for every workout, long-term implementation is not likely.

Change behaviour patterns sustainably with values

Fortunately, there is an innate tool that makes it easier to do the right thing: Values & Principles. They can be seen as an inner compass or behavioural guidelines. If fitness and athleticism are strong values for me, I will find it easier to implement my daily workout. The right values make it easier to implement my desired behaviour. In addition, every single action reinforces my values and therefore its effect. Once you have started the self-reinforcing cycle, it is the most effective method to sustainably change behaviour patterns in yourself or others.

There are countless leadership methods, leadership styles and management approaches. Most of them focus on the behaviour of leaders without looking at the values behind it. Especially in a society marked by constant change, leaders are more dependent than ever on an inner anchor that enables them to do justice to their different roles and remain authentic at the same time.

Leadership Principles by Amazon

Amazon recognized this in 2017 and published 14 principles that you should know about as a leader. These principles contain all the important values for exceptionally good leadership behaviour. So if you ask yourself what you need to do to become a good leader, you only need to absorb these principles and you will automatically do the right thing. In other words, Amazon’s collection of principles is “the force” in Star Wars. “How energy fields these principles. Environment and us they guide. The galaxies hold them together,” says Master Yoda.

At this point, here’s an appeal to your stamina at the beginning – it takes some time and a number of repetitions until you have become familiar with the principles and values. This time to internalise can be explained with Gartner’s Hype Cycle process:

With the help of practical examples, you will get a valuable orientation on how to handle the official “Leadership Principles” from Amazon – which admittedly cause quite a bit of confusion at first glance. We hope that with this guide you will be able to reflect on your current leadership behaviour and, more importantly, adapt it in the future. Here are the 14 principles of Amazon:

1. 100% customer-oriented (Customer Obsession)

“Leaders start with the customer and work backwards from there. They constantly work to gain and maintain the trust of our customers. Leaders keep an eye on the competition, but always keep the customer in focus.”

Obviously, the customer comes first! Do more than just your duty. Always act from the customer’s point of view. Be prepared to sacrifice something in the short term if that means your client benefits in the long term.

Example: After the holiday, you have 20 unread emails in your inbox. You reply first to those that have the highest customer value.

2. Take responsibility (ownership)

“Leaders are owners of the company. They plan for the long term and do not sacrifice long-term values for the sake of short-term results. They act in the interest of the whole company, not just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job”.”

There are two basic things at work here:

  1. Always priortise long-term success over the short term.
  2. Always act in the interest of the company and your team as a whole – everything is your job.

Example: At that moment, saying “no” to a customer seems contradictory to the first principle. However, if it means saying “no” to the wrong customer in order to be able to say “yes” to the right customer, the second principle becomes clearer. It is about leaders taking responsibility for the long-term success of a team. This also means that you have to say “no” to a client once in a while.

3. Invent & Simplify

“Amazon employees demand of themselves and their teams to be innovative and imaginative and to constantly find ways to simplify things. They know their environment, look everywhere for new ideas and are not influenced by whether innovations are developed within or outside their team. When we tackle something new, we accept that we might be misunderstood for a long time.”

Courage to constantly change. The key to great success is to continuously question things and keep them simple at the same time.

Example: How does your team deal with home office? Are new tools regularly tried out and discarded? In the current situation, you can live out this principle to the full in a protected setting and thus introduce or simplify many new things. Implement a stand-up meeting with your team every day for a week and let your team reflect on this change on Friday. Companies that are committed to their employees and constantly give constructive feedback perform better.

4. Making the right decision (Are Right, A Lot)

“Our leaders make the right decisions. They have excellent judgement and good instincts. They seek different perspectives and never stop putting their own beliefs to the test.”

The first two sentences are quite provocative and are often misunderstood. Simplified, the value behind the principle is “wisdom”. Leaders should strive to gather as much information as possible on a topic in order to make the right decision with a view to the big picture. At the same time, however, managers should also be prepared to turn their own opinion around 180 degrees at any time. Cognitive inertia has nothing to do with wisdom.

Example: Steve Jobs was famous for this approach. One day he was thinking of idea X, the next day he realized he was completely wrong and suddenly he was fully behind idea Y. In his way, he was “right, a lot”.

5. Learn & be curious

“For leaders, the learning process is never finished, because they want to constantly improve. They are curious, open-minded and always exploring new opportunities.”

The principle is self-explanatory: leaders must always strive to work on themselves and always improve.

Example: reading books, attending training courses and always reflecting on one’s own actions are three simple examples of this principle. Here are our top 5 books on leadership:

  1. The 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni
  2. The Scrum Fieldbook by Jeff Sutherland
  3. x
  4. Start with Why von Simon Sinek
  5. Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg

6. Hire and Develop the Best

“Leaders raise the standard with every hire and promotion. They recognize extraordinary talent and support transfers and development within the company. Leaders develop leaders and take their coaching role seriously. In the interest of our employees, we develop career development mechanisms such as Career Choice.”

The best football player in the world is only the best as long as he can develop and grow. You have to apply this analogy to your employees: give them the chance to become the best player. Even if this means that your employee overtakes you.

Example: An important activity is coming up that is usually taken over by the “boss”? Give your employees the chance to grow with a big challenge at the next opportunity. If it goes wrong, however, you have to take responsibility for it.

7. Insist on the Highest Standards

“Leaders relentlessly set high standards – to this standard may even seem disproportionately high to many. Leaders continually raise the bar and motivate their teams to develop high-quality products, services and processes. Leaders make sure that mistakes don’t spread far and that their cause is fixed once and for all.”

High goals give your team a sense of importance. The underlying values of “optimism” and “determination” are a guarantee of motivation for your team. In addition to quantitative measures, you should also take care of qualitative measures – unfortunately, these are all too often forgotten.

Example: Big goals are easier to formulate if they are far in the future. At the next meeting, ask your team how they imagine their work or product in 5 years? What would be better then? When you have found answers to these questions, ask yourselves in a second step how the result can be achieved in one year?

8. Think Big

“Those who think small cannot achieve big goals. Leaders develop and communicate a bold vision and inspire big results. They think differently and around corners, looking for new ways to serve customers everywhere.”

This principle is not just about big ideas and visionary approaches. It’s about thinking big while keeping up with the customer’s focus.

Example: A big project is on the horizon – in order to land it, the entire team would have to change focus and take a considerable risk for several weeks. As a leader with the value “farsightedness”, you compare the risk with the opportunity and assess the relationship neutrally.

9. Bias for Action

“Quick action is important in business. Many decisions and actions are revocable and do not need to be explored extensively in advance. We value calculated risk-taking.”

This principle is based on the value of “error culture” and on the fact that most errors are repairable. It is therefore perfectly acceptable to make mistakes in order to promote speed of action.

Example: Delegation is probably the best example of this principle. The more decisions employees can make themselves, the more effective your team is.

10. Targeted use of resources (frugality)

“Achieve more with less. Limiting oneself can also bring about resourcefulness, promote financial independence and innovation. We don’t applaud leaders who just increase the number of employees, the budget or fixed costs.”

This value is often more represented in smaller companies: Don’t waste money or working time. Doing more with less is probably the classic business rule. Effective use of resources does not mean doing things more cheaply, but rather doing the right things.

Example: Perhaps you know the Pareto principle? It describes that with 20% of the effort 80% of the result can be achieved. If you now list all your open activities – which ones would make up 80% of the result? Do only these tasks today and ask yourself the question again tomorrow.

11. Earn Trust

“Leaders are attentive listeners, make honest statements and treat their fellow human beings with respect. They are open to self-criticism, even if it seems awkward or embarrassing. Leaders know that they and their team are not flawless. They measure themselves and their teams against the best.”

Trust is not a one-way street. You must not only earn trust from others, but also let others feel that you trust them.

Example: Bring your words and actions into harmony. This is the cornerstone of any relationship of trust.

12. Dive Deep

“Leaders work at all levels and never lose sight of the details. They regularly review decisions and processes and react sceptically when expectation, intuition and results are not in harmony. No task is too insignificant for them.”

The difficulty lies in recognizing when you should act according to Principle 9 “Act Actively” and when you should act according to this principle. A good compass is to compare your instincts with the reactions of your team members, advisors or KPIs. If they don’t match, you should gather more information and ultimately always make number-based decisions.

13. Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit

“Leaders must question decisions they disagree with in a respectful way, even if it is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have convictions and stand up for them strongly. They do not accept compromises if they are only made for the benefit of community bonding. Once a decision is made, they stand behind it completely.”

The idea behind the 13th principle is enormously important. The value of “integrity” has unfortunately lost importance in recent decades. Politicians and leaders with integrity are rarer to find than they were 50 years ago. Integrity describes steadfastness, how much one stands by one’s values and views. Integrity is all too often confused with stubbornness. The difference is that a value is not an opinion, it’s an attitude. To maintain this attitude is to have integrity.

Example: You may find yourself in a situation where two of your employees have different opinions and come to you individually with this dilemma. At this point you have to share your position clearly, openly and honestly. However, it is also important to be aware of and respect other attitudes.

14. Deliver Results

“Leaders focus on the key influencers for their business and deliver results with the right quality and meeting all deadlines. Even if they face setbacks, they rise to the challenge and never give up.”

This refers to a healthy hands-on mentality coupled with a focus on results. SMART goals and leadership by showing are practical tips here.

Practical example: When an agency in the field of software development faltered due to the crisis in 2008, the development team had to be dismissed. The managers did not want to leave their clients in the lurch, but they were not developers themselves. They had no idea how to keep servers running, nor how to build websites. But they were determined to do everything they could to keep the agency. First, they learned how to restart the servers by having a former developer write a guide. It was a trivial step, but one that had to be done several times a day. The next few months didn’t go so badly. They found a way to outsource programming work cost-effectively and learned everything they needed to keep going. After a long dry spell, they were able to hire developers again. The agency is more successful today than ever before – even though the directors are now running the agency again instead of restarting servers.

VIDEO: Amazons powerful principles

Equipped with these 14 principles, nothing stands in your way of becoming or remaining a great leader. It helps, by the way, if you make them visible somewhere and remind yourself of them regularly. You can also specifically ask for these values during job interviews and take them into account when making a decision.