What can you learn from one of the most influential people in (recent) history? Are there any lessons from Jeff Bezos’ leadership style you can apply to your team today?
Not sure if you’re aware of this, but Bezos is planning to go to space on July 20th. He’ll be doing so on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, the rocket ship made by his space company, Blue Origin. That’s supposed to happen 15 days after he steps down from his role as CEO at Amazon.
Jeff Bezos’ achievements are nothing short of miraculous. They include building the world’s highest-valued company from scratch, donating more than $2bn to charity, revitalizing the Washington Post, and many others.
To accomplish those things, Bezos has used a few surprisingly straightforward leadership principles. In today’s post, we’ll be sharing some of the most important ones and providing advice on how to actually use them for your team.
5 Jeff Bezos Leadership Principles You Can Apply to Your Team
We’ve compiled these principles from our favorite Bezos’ quotes, books, and public speeches and appearances we found. Each quote contains a link to its original source, so you can learn more about that specific area you’re interested in.
Let’s dive into today’s 5 principles and ways to apply them at your company.
Table of Contents:
- Embrace failure
- Use meeting memos
- Keep innovating
- Use the two pizza team rule
- Make high-quality decisions early in the day
1. Embrace failure
“One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.
To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”
This quote from one of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon shareholder letters shows why he values failing so much. For him, failure is a highly important tool for continually improving and learning new things.
Bezos explained that, despite this, there’s a very important difference between good and bad failure.
In “Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos”, he was quoted saying:
“If we build a new fulfillment center and it’s a disaster, that’s just bad execution. But when we are developing a new product or service or experimenting in some way, and it doesn’t work, that’s OK. That’s great failure.”
For Bezos, the context of failure is key. You have to consider the outcomes of your mistakes to know where you can afford to fail.
We know this sounds abstract. However, we can show you exactly what he means and how to apply that principle to your team.
A balanced approach to failing: Task Relevant Maturity
According to EY, 79% of C-suite executives say their organizations accept failure and consider it a key element of innovation.
Despite that, knowing how to make failure a part of your culture is tricky. How can you ensure there’s enough room for mistakes in your organization without putting everything at risk?
Use the waterline to turn risk and failure into your advantage.
The company W.L. Gore has created an awesome analogy for solving this. It’s called “the waterline principle”:
“The waterline principle means that it’s ok to make a decision that might punch a hole in the boat as long as the hole is above the waterline so that it won’t potentially sink the ship.
But, if the decision might create a hole below the waterline which might cause the ship to sink, then associates are encouraged to consult with their team so that a collaborative decision can be made.”
W.L Gore encourages giving your team enough room to improve through failure, but ensuring they don’t make mistakes with irreversible consequences.
If it’s a high-risk task, you should be more hands-on and provide guidance to your team. Meanwhile, if it is a low-risk project or task, feel free to give your people more freedom to experiment, innovate, and make mistakes.
Such a balanced approach to failing will contribute to a more open way of thinking at your company. It will also accelerate your people’s growth by giving them more opportunities to learn from experience.
That’s likely exactly what Jeff Bezos had in mind when he first started encouraging mistakes at Amazon.
We’ve written other posts about learning from mistakes. You can check them out here:
- The Most Important Aspect of Task Relevant Maturity Many Leaders Forget
- How Managers Can Cause Low Employee Morale
- Chaos Theory and Management: Learning from Systems in Nature
- 3 Essential Leadership Lessons Most Entrepreneurs Learn the Hard Way
2. Use meeting memos
Bezos was quoted saying banning PowerPoint slides in meetings at Amazon was “probably the smartest thing we ever did.”
What he introduced instead was the concept of the pre-written brief or memo.
At Amazon, every meeting starts with each attendee silently reading a “six-page, narratively-structured memo” before any discussion begins.
Bezos explained that these memos serve to create context for a productive discussion. While reading them, attendees are encouraged to take notes and discuss them after everyone is done reading.
Introducing memos contributed to Amazon accomplishing a few important things:
- It leveled the playing field for everyone by allowing people to understand the context of the meeting
- It encouraged active participation, even among those who had very little time to prepare like executives
- It made the goal of every meeting clear so no one felt like they were losing time by being in it
- It encouraged the meeting organizers to put effort into preparation, as they would usually receive feedback on their memos
Here is an example of some of those rules (originally posted by Amazon’s @captaindanny10):
Not enough time for 6-page memos? Try meeting agendas
Preparing six-page memos for every meeting is a big ask. Besides, those memos are meant mainly for group meetings. There’s a much simpler alternative you can use to make sure you’re getting the most out of your 1:1s – creating meeting agendas.
Having meeting agendas for every check-in is great for a couple of reasons. It ensures you’re building momentum and continuity with everyone on your team as well as encouraging their active participation. They know what to expect and so do you.
Creating agendas will help you make your 1:1s much more intentional.
Here’s what you can do to get the most out of them:
- Make sure your team member adds their talking points to the agenda
- Let them talk about their items first
- Add your own questions and topics
- Avoid status updates
- Take notes to remember action items and key details
- Set a deadline for creating agendas to drive accountability
Similar to Amazon’s memos, agendas can make every meeting more productive. The 1:1 itself can remain fluid and open-ended, but having a bit of structure will ensure you and your team member understand the goal of each check-in and they stay motivated.
Creating and reviewing agendas in separate docs can be confusing and tedious, though. That’s why our Lighthouse meeting software organizes them for you in one place. It even prompts you and your teams to add talking points ahead of your meeting.
You can experience how much more organized your 1:1s can be if you sign up for a free 21-day trial now.
3. Keep innovating
“If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunities on the table.”
“If you double the number of experiments you do per year you’re going to double your inventiveness.”
These two quotes by Bezos illustrate his passion for exploring new opportunities. According to the Drucker Institute, a leadership-focused think tank, Amazon was the most innovative company in the world in 2020.
The institute used 11 indicators to create an innovation coefficient and put Amazon ahead of Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and other competitors of similar stature.
They outpaced everyone else in the number of patent applications, trademark registrations, and R&D investments. The report also found that Amazon abandons patent applications at a higher rate than others, which ties back to our earlier point about embracing failure.
Bezos sees innovation as an integral part of his philosophy, and you can see it in their many product launches and new initiatives. From stumbling onto Amazon Web Services as a great business, to the failed Amazon phone, they’re not afraid to step outside what an online book store was supposed to be.
Never stop learning
We’ll be honest – this principle was the most difficult one for us to turn into an actionable recommendation. Amazon has billions of dollars to innovate with. It’s constantly patenting new things and raising the bar in a number of areas. What can you take away from that as a leader with a budget many times smaller?
Well, the idea of innovating should always be on your mind. How can you be more innovative and creative as a leader? Look for new sources of knowledge.
The Greek philosopher Plato once said: “I know that I know nothing.” What he meant by this was that his thirst for knowledge was eternal.
No matter what stage of your career you’re in, you should always strive to improve by finding inspiration in unorthodox places.
If you don’t know where to start, that’s okay – we’ve got you covered. You can try choosing from:
- The 10 Best Books for New Managers on Leadership and Self-Improvement
- 5 Awesome & Unconventional Books for Leaders to Learn From
- 3 Books Every Manager Should Read
- Our article on the link between Chaos Theory and management
Make exposing yourself to new information a habit and embrace innovation as part of your leadership style. At the very least, this will prevent you from only having a handful of the same ideas all of the time.
4. Use the Two Pizza Team Rule
Have you noticed how much more difficult leading teams becomes as your team grows? Jeff Bezos has, which is why he has a unique take on team organization and communication.
Bezos figured out that individual teams shouldn’t be larger than what two pizzas can feed. At Amazon, that meant limiting the number of people in one team to eight.
There’s actually research to back up that principle. As organizational psychologist and expert on team dynamics J. Richard Hackman pointed out, the number of links between people is the main culprit behind the inefficiency of large teams.
Let’s dive into why this is the case. As the image above shows, every new person on your team creates more lines of communication. With just 13 people on your team, you have to make a dizzying 78 lines of communication work somehow.
This presents an organizational nightmare for you as a manager. It can lead to:
- More tasks to delegate and outcomes to manage
- More communication issues to resolve
- Having more interests and motivations to consider than you can effectively handle
If you lead teams with 10+ people, you’ve already likely experienced some of these challenges. If you can’t give everyone on your team the attention and coaching they need, it’s time to make a change.
Implementing the two pizza team rule and creating smaller teams
Let’s say you’ve decided to try Bezos’ two-pizza team rule. You’ve figured out you can’t keep track of a growing number of people, and now you’re willing to create smaller teams. How can you do that?
You need to promote and develop new leaders. If that doesn’t happen, your team can easily start feeling rudderless and resent you due to not getting enough attention. To prevent that, you need to help people within your team grow into leaders. Here’s 3 things you can do:
1) Look for those who are already leaders
Promote someone who has already shown initiative and independence. Reward patterns of behavior you want to see more of from other members of your team like empathy for others and a willingness to help.
Also – be careful make sure you’re promoting based on merit, and not someone who kisses up to you, or plays politics.
2) Learn how to delegate effectively
Use the concept we previously mentioned, Task Relevant Maturity, to determine when you can let your team work on their own, and when you need to be more hands on.
If they’re just starting out, or if their mistake can cause your proverbial ship to sink (i.e. lead to losing a customer or missing a major deadline), be more hands-on and guide them in their work.
Meanwhile, if they’ve shown you they can handle a task successfully, give them more independence. If they’re really good at something, be prepared to let them take the lead and make suggestions on how to approach new projects.
3) Coach and develop your new leaders
Once you promote someone to being manager and giving them some of your direct reports, your work is just beginning. Be prepared to invest in their success by coaching and developing them. Use your 1:1s with them to share advice, strategies, and tools you’ve used to be a successful manager.
With these three best practices, you’ll be more likely to successfully scale your team and organization as it grows.
Want more resources on growing leaders within your team? Check out some of the following links:
- Employee Coaching: Why it Matters and How to Become Great at It
- To be Great, Managers Must Become Coaches (Learn why & how)
- 12 Questions for Your Team to Become a Better Coach at Work
- Who do you promote? 5 Qualities of a Good Leader
- How to Become a Senior Leader in 5 Key Steps
5. Make high-quality decisions early in the day
“I go to bed early, I get up early…I also like to do my high-IQ meetings before lunch. Anything that’s going to be really mentally challenging–that’s a 10 o’clock meeting. Because by 5 p.m., I’m like, ‘I can’t think about that today. Let’s try this again tomorrow at 10.“
“If I make three good decisions a day, that’s enough. They should just be as high quality as I can make them.”
Take a second to think about it: Have you ever noticed how much more organized your thoughts are in the morning? Or how the longer you work, your impulse control weakens and your concentration drops?
To get the most out of his mornings, Bezos always makes sure he gets at least eight hours of sleep. He says that helps him think better, have more energy, and keeps his mood in balance. He’s literally aligning his circadian rhythm to what best fits his performance and lifestyle.
He is also very likely aware of decision fatigue – a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. Decision fatigue means that we become progressively worse at making decisions as we make more of them throughout the day.
As you become more mentally drained, your brain starts cutting corners. That usually means you start acting impulsively instead of expending the energy to think through the consequences of your actions.
To counter this, you can pair the “before lunch” meeting rule with another popular framework we’ve written about: eating that frog.
Eat that Frog!
Often, the thing that weighs us down the most at work is that one big task we don’t feel like doing. And if we decide to procrastinate, the mental burden keeps growing as the hours go by.
The worst part is that avoiding that task doesn’t solve the issue. As we become more tired, the likelihood of us being productive plummets.
To overcome this feeling, Brian Tracy has come up with the “Eat the Frog” framework. Here’s how it works:
Each day, take the most difficult, but most important task (the frog), and face it head on (or eat it!) and do it first.
By making time first thing in your day to tackle your most important to-do, you’ll be reducing the mental burden caused by procrastination and avoiding decision fatigue leaving you too tired to do it later. It’s as simple as that (at least on paper).
Jeff Bezos is well aware of this, which is why he has given up on making important decisions after 5PM. You can do the same by combining higher quality sleep and tackling your most difficult tasks at the beginning of your day instead of delaying them.
Here are some other resources you can use to improve your decision making and find more balance as a leader:
- 8 Ways to Address Your Workplace Stress You Can Start Today
- Why You Need to Improve Your Mindfulness at Work (and how to do it)
- Why Work-Life Balance Trumps the Hustle Hype
- How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Technology
The best way to learn from Jeff Bezos’ leadership style
As Jeff Bezos keeps reshaping the frontiers of technology, efficiency, and human achievement, it’s difficult to imagine we could have anything in common with him.
However, his openness about the principles behind his success offer a glimpse into how he thinks that you can emulate and learn from.
However, just reading about them won’t get you very far. That’s why at Lighthouse, we’re creating the most actionable ways for you to improve as a leader.
Our 1:1 meeting software offers you the guidance and structure you need to adopt principles similar to what Bezos has used at Amazon. With Lighthouse, you’ll be able to completely reorganize your 1:1 meetings and make sure you’re getting the most out of them. They are your most valuable meeting with your team member after all.
This includes helping you create actionable agendas for better engagement in every check-in. It also includes suggested questions that will help you cover new topics and unlock new insights from your team.
Lighthouse also lets you keep an eye on your newly promoted leaders through skip level meetings for your two-pizza teams.
Sign up for a free 21-day trial of Lighthouse now and we’ll help you adopt habits that will launch your career forward.