Ringleader Bezos: Amazonian Visionary
Imagine a circus without a ring leader. Even if the show was organized and successfully run from behind the scenes or by each individual performer/actor, the show would still lack a sense of cohesion and unity. The experience of the circus goer would be dazed and confused. There would be no one to announce the coming of the elephants or the exit of clown squad. The very identity of the circus is tied to the ringleader and how he/she ties every other act together. The same is true for any organization: the leader ties it all together. Without a leader or with a bad leader, it is difficult for an organization to arrive at a single vision to follow, a single way of doing things, or sometimes a direction at all. Conversely, with a good leader at the helm, providing a string visions, an organization can grow and thrive. Jeff Bezos is just such a leader who has been very successful despite the obstacles his organization, Amazon, has faced.
When looking for a business leader who embodies a dynamic and bold leadership style one need not look any further then Jeff Bezos. Bezos is a leader who upended the marketplace with his vision and aggressive leadership style. Bezos went to Princeton University and upon graduation worked at an investment firm on Wall Street (Biography.com, 2018). In 1994, Bezos left the firm and moved to Seattle, Washington where he intended to target the untapped market of e-commerce (Biography.com, 2018). This initial launch into the e-commerce market eventually led to the formidable success associated with Bezos’ Amazon.com (also referred to as Amazon).
Bezos recognized the potential to sell products, initially books, strictly online while keeping minimum inventory in a warehouse. He envisioned Amazon as a bookstore without walls. A traditional brick and motor book store is limited by its size in how many books it can keep in stock. This is not the case with a website where orders are fulfilled by numerous retailers, including Amazon itself. Since 1994, Amazon has become the largest online store, encompassing numerous products and bringing in 17 billion dollars, as of 2011 (Biography, 2018). The vision that Bezos has had is what has made Amazon a success and is a direct link to the style of leadership, namely visionary at its core, which Bezos has employed.
Visionary leadership involves seeing a point in the future where you want to be and then completing the necessary steps of how to get there (Lavinsky, 2013). Bezos consistently had a long term goal he was aiming for (Carlson, 2011). Amazon started out as an online book store, but Bezos’ intention was to always to grow it into a platform that would sell everything that one possibly could online (Carlson, 2011). Bezos recognized the potential of the internet and its potential as a marketplace very early on. Other websites focused on the exchange of information, whether it be news or blogs, others focused on sales, but in a limited fashion. Amazon’s first and only intention was to be an online store—first, for books and then other products. Secondly, Bezos continually diversified his offering through Amazon by adding CDs and video in 1998 and then toys, machinery, and clothes through major retailers later on (Biography.com, 2018). Through this constant foresight and vision, Bezos has created a website that, according to Slice Intelligence, generates 43% of online sales (Weller, 2017).
It is no doubt that Bezos’ greatest achievement is Amazon. What was once a small emerging online bookstore based out of a garage in Seattle, WA. is now a place where almost every U.S. Citizen shops (Biography.com, 2018). This is no small accomplishment in a society that sees entrepreneurial visionaries fall time and time again. Unlike many other online retailers that floundered in the dot—com crash of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Amazon survived. Not only did it survive it flourished and became a place that is synonymous with the internet and online shopping. Today, one out of four Americans has an Amazon Prime account (Weller, 2017). Furthermore, it has since bought Whole Foods in August of 2017 in order to expand into yet another domain, the organic food market (Lutz, 2017). Amazon is becoming a one stop shop for many Americans and that is what makes Amazon Bezos’ greatest achievement; not only because of its size, but because it was a product of one vision and sheer determination to overcome numerous obstacles.
The road that Bezos chose was not an easy one and one that has seen many failures and challenges throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. Many of these challenges resulted from failed investments resulted from improper judgments of supply and demand scales. According to Bezos, he made many expensive mistakes which he call “Bad Choices” that added up to millions of dollars(Stibel, 2014). Recently Bezos has faced a difficult challenge in expanding the company globally and adapting to certain foreign markets. For example, in 2015, Amazon adapted to the “Cash on Delivery” model in response to the demands of markets in underdeveloped countries such as India. Looking at India as an example, one can quickly see challenges to Amazon’s typical model where “fewer than 12% of people have credit or debit cards” (D,Onofro, 2015). Customers could not use Amazon because they had no means to pay online, before delivery. This was a difficult challenge for Bezos to overcome but he did so with an innovative idea and vision which he was able to share with the working groups of Amazon.
Supplying a vision is not the full extent of Bezos’ leadership, however. In order to gain support for one’s vision before, during, and after its realization, one must have a power base which is influenced to. Bezos is no exception; he often uses his expert influence gain buy-in and stir action in the working groups of Amazon made up of executives, directors, and managers. Expert power is simply defined as the ability to control behavior through knowledge, experience, or judgment that other individuals need or value. In the context of the challenges Amazon faced entering emerging markets in countries like India, Bezos has a plethora of experience and knowledge which not only helped him to create his innovative vision of “Cash on Delivery” but also to gain support for its realization. Expanding business outside of the US was essential to keep driving demand for the ever evolving company, Amazon, and founder.
Early on, Bezos drove his employees to follow his vision in a directive and achievement-oriented fashion. Jeff would set goals for his employees and would set them rather high. The vision Bezos presented was very customer-centric; Jeff was more concerned for the satisfaction of the customer than he was of the employees. The employees in the early stages of Amazon would pack boxes of books on their knees on concrete floors with no tables in the shipping area to use. Everything in the premise of Jeff’s focus was how to get things to the customer easier and faster, how to make the company more efficient, not for the welfare of the employee, but for the customer. A competitor of his, Pierre Omidyar (Founder of EBay), took a different approach; he hired a leader and got out of the way. Both companies were started as a way to get products to customers through the internet. Bezos had a vision for the future of Amazon to be the most customer-centric company and to sell anything and everything which the customer would want. Omidyar on the other hand, started EBay to impress his girlfriend and create a place where collectors could trade, buy, or sell collectibles. Bezos analyzes everything when it comes to his company, down to the loading rate of the web page; he learned that a 0.1 second delay in the loading of the website equals a 1% drop in customer activity. Omidyar on the other hand, along with his partner, Jeff Skol, learned early that they weren’t ready to lead or entirely run the company, so they hired Margeret Whitham as CEO. She is the one that took EBay from a small website business to what it is today. She didn’t have the technological smarts to know how the product worked, but she knew business enough to know how to get EBay on its way to becoming a publicly traded company. At face value,Bezos and Omidyar look almost identical in the early beginnings of their companies, but the two leadership styles took each of them in entirely different directions.
It makes sense that the leadership styles used will depend on the stage of growth that the business is in. In the early or beginning stage of a company, the leader needs to take a more directive approach. The focus of the company early is almost always based on the customer and solely on the customer. This is the entire reason for going into business in the first place: to get your product or service to the customer in the most efficient and profitable way possible. As the company continues to grow then the leadership style can change to a more supportive and participative style. By then the company should have a faithful and strong customer base, allowing the focus to shift from customer to employee. The employee should then become the customer of the leaders; this will create a strong and faithful employee base. With both bases, customer and employee, strong, a company can grow into a juggernaut such as Amazon. In either mode of operation, Bezos’ visionary leadership will continue to be a boon of innovation and driver for growth for Amazon.
Bezos’ visionary leadership has been the foundation of Amazon’s success and even its very existence. It has carried the company from humble begins, through challenging times, and to where it sits today as the world’s largest online retailer. Still, Bezos is able to hold the circus together—boy what a show!
Biography.com (2018). Jeff Bezos Biography. Retrieved from: https://www.biography.com/people/jeff-bezos-9542209
Blazek, K. (2016, May 19). Jeff Bezos: How His Unique Leadership Style Set Amazon Apart. Retrieved April 29, 2018, from TruScore: https://www.truscore.com/360-feedback-resources/jeff-bezos-leadership-style/
Carlson, N. (2011). Business Insider. Jeff Bezos: Here is why he won. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-visionary-2011-4
D’Onfro, Jillian. “One Of Amazon’s Biggest Challenges For The New Year.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 22 Jan. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/one-of-amazons-biggest-challenges-for-2015-2015-1
Entrepreneur Magazine.(2018). Pierre Omidyar.Entrepreneur.
Lavinsky, D. (2013). Forbes. Are you a visionary business leader. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davelavinsky/2013/04/26/are-you-a-visionary-business-leader/#49ee53ea7bbf
Lutz, A. (2017). Business Insider. Amazon is officially buying Whole Foods – here is everything that will change for customers. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-buys-whole-foods-changes-2017-8
Stibel, Jeff. “Jeff Bezos: A Profile in Failure.” LinkedIn, 1 Dec. 2014, www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141201155043-461078-jeff-bezos-a-profile-in-failure/.