A Leadership Accountability Check at Amazon

Amazon is in the news again, and not for a good reason. A recent report from Reuters says a trove of documents examined by reporters confirms the on-line retail giant “stoked sales of Amazon private-brand offerings by rigging Amazon’s search results so that the company’s products would appear…‘in the first 2 or three search results’“ for customers on Amazon.in, its Indian e-commerce site. This despite sworn testimony before the US Congress from senior Amazon executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, that such practices are forbidden at Amazon. This is not accountable leadership. Either Bezos approved this initiative, directly or by turning a blind eye to it, or he is not aware of what is going on in his own organization. Either situation reflects a major problem.

A story like this is important, because it speaks volumes about the working culture. Here is the takeaway for every organization, not just Amazon. Values matter. As leaders, we must commit to identify the right values, model the right values, and live the right values, whether or not anyone is looking. Period. It does not matter how pretty the stated values sound. What matters is the action we take and the choices we make in support of those values. (Side note: Amazon’s core values sound pretty, but they have a hole you could drive a Mack truck through when it comes to integrity.)

When senior leadership sends, by word or by example, the message that anything is acceptable as long as it has a positive impact on the bottom line, values vanish, and bad things start to happen.

Making money cannot be the only behavior the organization rewards. Money is like oxygen. Yes, human beings need oxygen in order to survive — but the purpose of a human life is not to breathe air. Our individual purpose needs to be rooted in some deeper aspiration. It is the same for an organization. If the purpose of our organization is just to make money, we are missing some important ingredients, notably contribution and integrity.

When the senior leader in an organization makes the decision that it is okay to lie to Congress, that it is okay to operate in a way that rewards financial gain and only financial gain, that it is okay to lie if no one notices, what are they really telling the people who report to them? They are telling the entire organization that integrity doesn’t matter in any decision, in any communication, or in any planning session. They are saying, “The problem with rigging search results is not that it goes against our values — the problem with rigging search results is getting caught.”

This kind of “leadership” can carry devastating consequences. It creates an organization where the core operating principle sounds something like this: “I am here to make a buck. And you’d better watch your back, because if I can make a buck at your expense, it’s no different from me making a buck at someone else’s expense.”

Does that sound like someplace where you want to build your career? Does that sound like someplace that the best and brightest seek out? Does it sound like the kind of place where they stay?

Leaders always get the culture they deserve. The working culture is determined by the leader’s personal commitments to the team. One of those commitments is identifying, defining, and living a powerful, positive set of values.

To get a glimpse of the personal accountability you are modeling for your team right now, take this free Accountability Assessment.

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