Dr James Blackmore-Wright,
Birmingham Business School
Last week saw Jeff Bezos step down from his role as Chief Executive Officer at Amazon after 27 years of growth, change and success at the world’s most influential retailer. As he moves into the background (though it is doubtful he will be taking a back seat) as Executive Chairman, what lessons can be learned from a leader who created a trillion-dollar organisation from his garage in less than 3 decades?
I will declare an interest now…Amazon has literally changed my life.
I have no need to “go” shopping, thus freeing me from my nemesis – the multi-story carpark. Without queues and not having to navigate tight spaces and carry heavy bags, I have been released from the shackles of the shopping centre. I have more friends than ever before (I am on first name terms with all the Amazon delivery drivers) and can immerse myself in box-set utopia, thanks to the pandemic-busting world of Amazon Prime.
Thank you, Jeff, for changing my life!
Doubtless, there has been a cost to my happiness. Tax avoidance, working practices and environmental impact are controversial, yet relevant, topics for Amazon. If I were to cast aside my bias and life-changing experiences, I would remember that not everything that a great leader does is great. Like I said, legacies are complicated things.
Is there such a thing as an Amazon leadership “template”? Much has been written about the Amazon leadership principles, from being obsessed with customers to taking calculated risks. They are admirable principles and countless business texts reference the innovative approaches taken to team meetings and staff development. All these things matter, but they are not unique. To understand his legacy, we need to look beyond our biases and Amazon folklore at how Jeff Bezos leads when it really matters -in failure and times of crisis:
Amazon has failed…a lot.
Living Social (Remember them?). Over $150m was invested in this business, only to be sold for $0 to Groupon a few years later.
The Fire Phone (Was it just me who bought one?). A multi-million-dollar flop, despite the technological strengths of the device.
Amazon pop up Stores. Project discontinued after initial successes.
Quidsi. Acquired for nearly half a billion dollars ion 2010 but closed in 2017, a business that Amazon admitted would “never be able to make a profit”.
These “failures” (there are many more) help to underline the real legacy of Jeff Bezos at Amazon. They also provide those of us who work in the field of leadership with something more life-changing than easy-shopping -Failure is an essential part of the journey for Amazon and t is something that Bezos actively encourages.
I’ve made billions of dollars off failures at Amazon.com. Billions of dollars in failures. You might remember Pets.com or Kozmo.com. It was like getting a root canal with no anaesthesia. None of those things are fun. But they also don’t matter – Jeff Bezos.
Just as the Amazon Echo rose from the ashes of the Fire Phone, business failures should be viewed as an opportunity to innovate, to understand what works better and to move forward. This ethos is part of the corporate culture will help Amazon overcome the next crisis (whatever that may be) and innovate with both customers and technology.
Real failure occurs when leadership teams adopt a state of inertia and are scared to adapt, innovate, and respond quickly in times of crisis.
His number one leadership quality? Effective leadership requires embracing failure and success in equal measure.
Thank you, Jeff, for your real legacy!
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.