Leadership styles- what we can learn and what we can do

Can we learn from the Big IT organisations from Silicon Valley?

The cynical side of me thinks that whether its Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix etc., whenever a “we do leadership better” its more of a marketing ploy than a real piece of referencable material.  Or in other words if we think they are good at leadership and hence their workforce is “happy”, are we more likely to buy their product or service?

Alternatively, (and hence the reason for this blog in the first place) is that these organisations have something very useful and relevant to say.  For a number of reasons – they are successful and this success will be in part (potentially a very large part) down to their workforce motivation and enabling a culture of innovation and success.

In the research I have done though I haven’t really seen any large pieces of conflicting information but more different levels of emphasis on particular principles. Some organisations have some very specific points that can be a little extreme (see Netflix). Whether the actual principles are adopted is not really the point – its more to sit up and listen and consider which could be relevant.

I am starting off with Google.  They have 5 Principles with the headline being “Psychological Safety”: https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Psychological safety: When team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. This is often cited as the most critical of areas, primarily because most people are quite reluctant to do things that could negatively influence how others perceive their ability. This is heightened even more when organisations are going through staff reduction exercises and cut backs. A really good working practice to promote psychological safety is, at the beginning of each meeting, to ask team members what risks they have taken.

AWS has 14 Principles. I wouldn’t say there is anything particularly startling with this list.  They focus on “customer first” and in fact go on further to infer their process is “Write the Press Release first” and then work from there. They do practice what they preach and clearly have a very strong level of Innovation.

Facebook has 10 :   Not surprisingly, a number of their principles on “Sharing” and making a single Community. I wonder how much is actually shared within the Organisation.

Microsoft has 3;  (each of the 3 broken into 3 sub principles)  Having three top level principles is good as it allows clarity (which is in fact their first Principle).

Harvard Business Review (HBR) has defined “Top 10 Principles” grouped into 5 themes.  According to HBR the most “important” leadership competence which of course ought to then transcend into a Principle is “Has High Ethical and Moral standards”. Of course no one is going to argue with this as this then becomes a discussion on the bedrock of an organisation’s cultural values.

I am going to finish off with Netflix.  This is an organisation that digitally disrupted the marketplace even before the term “Digital disruption” existed.  There are a number of very interesting articles on Netflix’s culture. I bring these out as in order for Neflix to be such a Disruptor it is clear they had to create a relatively unique organisation


I particularly like the articles on Netflix  With one single philosophy: people over process. Netflix has 10 core values. As an example of their Leadership principles, enclosed is a direct quote:

We have no bell curves or rankings or quotas such as “cut the bottom 10% every year.” That would be detrimental to fostering collaboration, and is a simplistic, rules-based approach we would never support. We focus on managers’ judgment through the “keeper test” for each of their people: if one of the members of the team was thinking of leaving for another firm, would the manager try hard to keep them from leaving? Those that do not pass the keeper test (i.e. their manager would not fight to keep them) are promptly and respectfully given a generous severance package so we can find someone for that position that makes us an even better dream team. Getting cut from our team is very disappointing, but there is no shame. Being on a dream team can be the thrill of a professional lifetime.

Furthermore, Netflix state “”Our goal is to inspire people more than manage them”. This means they have removed the majority of processes which are the normal employees main criticism of an organisation. For example

Expense policy is act in the Company’s best interest
Vacation policy is “take vacation”
Parental leave policy is “take care of your baby and yourself”
A few exceptions to the anti-rules – strict on ethics and safety , security of course

Netflix are not unique of course and as stated in their core philosophy focusing on people is key. What do people want then – yes, its not to over burden with unnecessary processes but its also “clarity” – whether they agree with it is another matter altogether.


Conversely: “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli


Before we all pack our bags and leave for Netflix or arrange a meeting with our Chief HR Director on some changes you think should be considered, let’s pause for one moment.  I am sure the vast majority of people reading this will go “wow, that’s fantastic, why won’t my employer adopt such leadership techniques and principles”. “Doing the right things, when required, is a calling from on high. Do it boldly, do as you believe, do as you are.” –Eiji Toyoda, Toyota.  So why can’t every organisation adopt this type of leadership and cultural style.

A number of reasons exist for this.  CEOs will find it difficult to reinvent their corporations rapidly enough to cope with the new market/technologies they require.  Much harder though is how they get their employees to adhere to the values and ethics.  A CEO writing a set of values and ethics and simply cascading them through their organisation will fail very quickly.

The prevailing question an employee will ask is “What’s in it for me”.  Looking philosophically for a moment, there is a tendency, in the West, following Plato that if a theory isn’t working there must be something wrong with reality.  People will tend to behave less ethically when in groups or organisations, rather than as an individual.

So it’s not surprising then, if we re-review a number of these Leadership principles which are undisputed leaders in their field, a core theme does emerge – a focus on the individual and allow the individual to focus on the customer of the organisation.  Executed correctly, a more successful organisation will emerge.  Executed badly will mean more CEO shelfware and a staff base that becomes less and less aligned with the company’s success.

I finish with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, :

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.










One thought on “Leadership styles- what we can learn and what we can do

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s