I just finished reading the book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” written by Brad Stone, a senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek and a former reporter for The New York Times and Newsweek.
The book is an inside look at Bezos and the relatively secretive corporate culture at Amazon. Prior to reading the book, I had heard snippets about Bezos’s difficult personality and the corporate culture he created. I really just had a good grip on Amazon’s business model and my perception of it from a customer point of view.
It seems that, although a private guy, Bezos, is legendary among Amazon workers for being extremely difficult to work with – much like other well-known CEOs that have also been described as challenging, demanding, and relentlessly ambitious. That puts Bezos in the company of notorious high-tech CEOs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, which are all infamous among employees and business partners for outrageous requests, dismissive attitudes, rude behavior, and the ability be-little their underlings.
Yet, the common thread is that all these CEO, no matter how difficult to work with and for, have inspired and driven great change with bold moves, disruptive products and innovation. Many have created new markets or revolutionized existing one.
That got me thinking about the upside to working with these types of leaders. I think we have all encountered difficult bosses, although maybe not to the degree or success of those mentioned above, but still survived and learned some valuable lessons along with way.
I know that during my career I have walked out of many meetings muttering curse words under my breath about the boss and his demands. But usually, in the end, I have found a way to solve a problem, fix a situation or complete a seemingly-insurmountable task based on that interaction.
Often these stronger, larger than life personalities can challenge workers to perform better; to reach for things they never dreamed possible; to motivate (although often through fear) and to deliver what seemed impossible.
I don’t approve of using negativity and fear to motivate my team (that’s a lesson I learned), but there is no doubt that certain leaders have been able to pull it off with great success. Although, the cost is often devastating to many individuals that have been sacrificed along the way.
I believe in challenging my employees and being challenged as well. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to think in new ways, come up with different solutions, and try to solve problems creatively. Sometimes work is hard and workers need to be prepared to take on difficult situations and overcome them.
I don’t accept mediocrity but I also don’t beat greatness out of people. I think that fostering a corporate environment of empowerment, reward and gratitude seems to work best – at least for my leadership style.
But that doesn’t mean that I won’t challenge my employees, partners and clients. In turn, I expect to be challenged if someone disagrees with me. The difference is that, as a boss, I welcome the challenges as a beginning to a discussion that will yield great results – not as an affront to my authority or power. I want to be leading people that respect me, not fear me. And disagreement does not necessarily mean rejection.
I remember a time when a really good client was challenging me. He kept coming at me and asking for more and more. Finally when he had decided that the solutions we had worked out were for the best for all parties, he relented. I’ll always remember him actually apologizing for his aggressiveness. But actually, I never minded it as he only wanting to do the best for his company and I appreciated his point of view. This client happens to be in the restaurant supply business. My response to him was “If I couldn’t stand the heat, you wouldn’t want me in the kitchen.” We still chuckle about that comment to this day.