In Defense of the Amazon Leadership Principles…

Let’s get it all on the table…those of you who have known me (or read my stuff) for a while, know full well that there were some things about working at Amazon that made me batshit crazy. It was a hard, and often thankless, job. I cried in the bathroom a few times too many, drank too much, and definitely missed entire seasons with my head buried in my Amazon-issued laptop trying to get Products out the door.

On the other hand, I made some of the best friends of my entire life in the trenches at Amazon. I learned to follow my curiosity and always always always start and end with the customer. My time at Amazon reinforced what I’d known my whole life…there were very few shortcuts to producing quality work…whether that work is writing a 1/3/6 pager or making a difficult architectural decision.

So perhaps that’s why yesterday I again found myself defending the Amazon Leadership Principles.

Here’s what I’ll say…

  • When I first joined Amazon I thought the Leadership Principles just made everyone sound like they’d drank some kool aid and that I would never get it. Then one day I realized I’d finally found a place where everyone Insists on Highest Standards and that I wasn’t just a freak with too high a bar for myself and others.
  • The Leadership Principles gave everyone (from SVP to interns) a language to communicate meaning quickly and to hold ourselves and others accountable. The language is used for everything from hiring to performance evaluation to conflict resolution. For instance, saying “Let me be vocally self critical…” is an amazing way to give young engineers (and everyone really) a way to admit a mistake or error in judgement in order to Earn Trust from others.
  • They aren’t meant to be easy. They are meant to increase velocity and help overcome roadblocks. To that end, there is inherit tension in the Leadership Principles on purpose. Afterall, sometimes a Bias for Action isn’t going to result in the most Frugal choice. And when does a leader Dive Deep to get data and metrics versus falling back on their intuition and inclination to be Right A Lot?
  • Amazon’s North Star is their focus on the customer. Remember…there are 14 principles that are in no particular order…EXCEPT that Customer Obsession is always #1. Always. No exception.
  • The Leadership Principles didn’t happen easily or overnight. There were a lot of Disagree and Commit moments and the leadership team felt strong Ownership to get this right. They were written by Amazon’s Leaders for Amazonians.
  • And despite what many think, Amazon even applies the Leadership Principles to the Leadership Principles. As the team is able to Learn and Grow, they have made edits, changed language, and remained fluid and in touch with their customers, partners, and teams.


Well…if you want the same results from a list of principles, tenets, norms, or <insert buzzword of the week>, you’ll need to put the work in.

  • What is your North Star?
  • Why are you doing what you do?
  • Who are you doing it for and what does that person (or people) mean to you?
  • What should it look and feel like to work in your office?
  • How do you want teams to make decisions and remove roadblocks when you aren’t free to do so?
  • What is your tolerance for risk, trial & error, and failure?

Answering these questions will likely generate a bunch more questions. Questions about where you’ve been, who you want to be, and what it will take to motivate and energize your teams. But if you are committed, on the other end of all that work, you should have a company identify and customers that are delighted!

Don’t try to be Amazon. The world already has one of those!

Be You! That’s what we need anyway!

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