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Beyond the Box Leadership Observations

A paradox is a seeming contradictory view, statement or proposition that when investigated or explained proves to be true. The fact is that Amazon’s leadership principles were never really paradoxical to me, but were just different than my almost three decade leadership experience in the Army. But the one thing that I did learn while leading America’s finest young men and women is that different is not always bad, and in embracing the differences of Amazon’s leadership principles I have discovered more similarity and commonality than divergence especially in the realm of development, communication, earning trust and delivering results.

Employee development is a reflection of how good your leadership is and great leaders take pride in seeing their team excel and develop skills that not only help themselves, but the organization. Cross-training, process path changes and new opportunities are always promoted and widely disseminated to ensure Associates understand the breath of potential experiences at Amazon. A good friend of mine Brigadier General Johnny K. Davis put it best when he stated, “exceptional leaders are selfless servants who exude humility and empathy among subordinates and superiors. They also invest in their people because they are the future.” I have found it refreshing that Amazon is keen on expanding Associate prospects, which is borne by the individual and site leadership personal commitment to expand these opportunities for willing Associates.

Excellent leaders communicate and do so believing that the time that they take to ensure understanding is an investment in the individual, team and organization. The fruits of communication are not always tangible. In fact, the simple act of doing so may even be a drag on productivity. At the operations level Amazon has implemented systems that foster individual, small team and facility synchronization that is exceptional in motion. Similar to the Army’s Three Block War which illustrates the complexities and spectrum of combat operations, Amazon leaders could find themselves involved in and discussing multifaceted business approaches one minute and in the next dealing with individual Associate performance. To do both well takes communication skills that are part of the daily cadence at Amazon. Whether it is bridging a volume miss or an Associate issue the requirement to understand the why and communicate that understanding is part of what makes a successful leader.

Associate trust is hard earned at Amazon. Associates much like Soldiers look for a leader that is willing to tell them the truth, one that has integrity and someone that speaks with candor and transparency. The fact is that if a leader is not honest then nothing else matters. Living by this ideal at Amazon often creates some really tough discussions, but the consequences of not doing so can absolutely create toxic and feral work environment. The fortitude that it takes to have a discussion with someone that is not meeting the standard and that you know depends upon this work to support their family is unlike any other, but the trust earned from the truthful exchange and eventual work performance improvement can be extremely rewarding. The fine line that we all walk is that trust and loyalty although hard earned can absolutely be lost forever and in a blink.

Amazon is the most results oriented-organization that I have ever been a part of and as hard as it is to write this given my Ranger, infantry, business and scholarly exploits it’s simply true.  The one thing that my experiences do have in common though is that great leaders deliver results in whatever they are asked to do. There is no task too mundane or menial and if it is a requirement there is no reason why it should not be done well and to the highest of standards. One of my favorite Non-Commissioned Officers, Command Sergeant Major Morris Welch, always told me that “leaders test mediocrity and deliver winning results.” This echoes in my ear daily as we strive to improve team performance and be better today than we were yesterday. I no longer have the sergeant major whispering in my ear, but our team process assistant is just as demanding and equally up to the task.

I joined Amazon because they much like the Army are willing to publicly announce what they stand for in the form of their leadership principles. I have found that occasionally falling short of something aspirational is much better than failing at something that is non-existent in most companies. And if I can conclude this blog with another thing that I have found to be common in both my Army and Amazon experiences…there is an ever-apparent distinction from being in charge than to providing inspired leadership. And the gap between those that do and don’t provide inspired leadership creates a chasm that can only be bridged through development, communication, trust and results.


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