An interview candidate asked me a weird question the other day:

“What is your favorite Leadership Principle?”

The Amazon Leadership Principles, or LPs, are familiar to anyone who’s interviewed there, because the interview questions are all looking for the candidate to demonstrate these LPs. And they’re very well known to everyone working there, since they are part of not just performance reviews and peer recognitions, but everyday work conversation. As far as corporate values go, Amazon has done a better job than most at integrating theirs into the culture. You know the LPs have seeped through when you hear it as part of the peculiar vernacular (“Let’s do a Dive Deep on this problem”, “Where’s your Have Backbone?” “Let’s Disagree and Commit here, please,” “That’s a Trustbuster.” and so on.)

I’d like to make 2 observations about the LPs (note: the views below are my own and do not reflect, etc.)

  1. They are a tool for business decision-making; nothing more, nothing less. You don’t have to embody them. For example - “Frugality” is a great way to run Amazon, but Bezos isn’t a frugal person (not lately at least.)

  2. They can be misused to justify any leadership decision, good or bad. The LPs are said to be “in tension” - a nice way of saying they’re mutually contradictory. As a result, anything a leader chooses to do can be matched up to an LP. For instance:

    • Made a hasty decision that led to bad outcomes? Oh, that was just your Bias for Action.
    • Constantly overloading your team with work? Oh, you’re just Insisting on the Highest Standard.
    • Overcommitting yourself? That’s just your Ownership at play there.
    • Over-hired and now having to lay off employees? That was just your Think Big in action ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
    • Organized a happy hour for your team? You are Striving to be the Earth’s Best Employer!
    • Cancelled said happy hour? That’s showing Frugality (or in this case, Frupidity.)

You get the idea. In the above examples the LPs are being used as descriptors of behavior, rather than guides. And they can be misused in other ways too - sometimes egregeiously so. Consider the recent push for RTO, where executives have been saying “it’s time for workers to ‘Disagree and Commit’ to an office return”. In this context, “disagree and commit” just means “shut up and do what I say.” What a spectacular misuse of a principle that was meant to prevent groupthink and HIPPO decision-making.

In my opinion, the test of a leader is which LPs they choose to emphasize in any given situation. That’s what demonstrates high judgment. When a tight deadline is looming, do you choose to emphasize Deliver Results at the risk burning out your team? Or do you Strive to be the Earth’s Best Employer at the risk of missing your customer promise? Consider the RTO mandate - would it have looked different if executives had decided to emphasize Earn Trust, or Hire and Develop the Best, instead of Disagree and commit?

Of course, making the “right” judgment call relies on the internal values of that leader. “Which LPs do I want to emphasize here, in a way that aligns with my values and priorities?” And that’s why I recommend training in ethics and humanities for young and mid-level managers. Without this foundation, these leaders will fail to navigate the tensions between leading human beings (who want to be treated with respect and do meaningful work with people they like) and the capitalistic system (which wants the line to keep going up at all costs.)

Bonus: Bryan Cantrill on Leadership Principles.