Expert Marketer Magazine

How Great Leaders Think About People

by Lee G. Bolman, Terrence E. DealFebruary 2015

As part of its long-term effort to take over the retailing world, internet giant Amazon swallowed up the much-smaller online shoe store, Zappos, in 2009. Many observers wondered if Zappos’ famously employee-friendly culture would soon succumb to the prevailing ethos at Amazon, which one writer summarized darkly as “sick brutality and [a] secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has become one of the world’s most visible business leaders, widely admired for just about everything – except his approach to managing people. Bezos’ annual letters to shareholders provide a superb example of how a very smart business leader thinks. In his first letter in 1997, when Amazon was a tiny speck on the economic landscape, he articulated three fundamentals: relentless focus on the customer, long-term growth rather than short-term results, and data-based decision-making. Bezos’s formula for success is deceptively simple. Anything that isn’t about customers, long-term, or learning from the data isn’t important. Every year since, he has appended the 1997 letter to the current edition to make it clear that he is still doing exactly what he said he’d do.

Over the years, the letters mostly catalogued innovations that improved the customer experience – Kindle, Amazon Prime, and many others. But he rarely wrote much about employees. For years, he seemed to ignore all the bad press Amazon garnered for its approach to managing people. Then in his 2013 letter, Bezos devoted half a page to a topic he’d never mentioned before – employee empowerment. He described an initiative, “Career Choice”, which would pay 95% of the tuition for employees who took courses in high demand fields, even if they weren’t relevant to Amazon. Even more remarkable was “Pay to Quit,” a program borrowed from “the clever people at Zappos”, which offered to pay warehouse workers to quit – starting at $2,000 the first year, and increasing to a max of $5,000 four years later.

The letter signals that Jeff Bezos is demonstrating one of the critical aspects of how great leaders think. He’s reframing. In the past, Bezos had shown skill in three of the four frames that are vital to leadership: structure, politics, and culture. Now he was getting the piece of the leadership puzzle that he’d been missing – the human resource frame, which emphasizes the importance of taking people seriously.

Effective leaders make sense of their world through multi-frame thinking embedded in stories that are both nuanced and elegantly parsimonious. Simplistic is easy; simple is hard. Good leaders know the difference. From the beginning, Bezos’s story had focused on caring for the customer. Now he was adding a new dimension – the importance of caring for his people as well.

Leaders’ mental models—rich or impoverished—determine the breadth and depth of their personal reality. How they think determines what they see and do. There are many labels for such mental models: maps, paradigms, mind-sets, worldviews, and cognitive lenses, to name a few. We call them frames. A frame is a set of beliefs and assumptions that you carry in your head to help you understand and negotiate some part of your world. A good frame makes it easier to know what’s happening, see more options, and make better choices. Frames are vital because human affairs don’t come with computerized navigation systems to guide you turn by turn to your destination. Instead, you need to develop and carry accurate maps in your head.

Such maps make it possible to register and assemble key bits of available data into a coherent pattern—an image of what’s going on. When it works fluidly, the process takes the form of “rapid cognition,” which Malcolm Gladwell examines in his best-seller Blink. He describes it as a gift that makes it possible to read “deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience”. Effective leaders need that kind of fluid expertise, the sort of know-how that lets them think on the fly and navigate the work world as easily as they drive home on a familiar route. They make decisions quickly and automatically because they know at a glance where they are and what they need to do next. There is no shortcut to developing this kind of expertise. It takes effort, time, practice, and feedback. Some of the effort has to go into learning frames and the ideas behind them. Equally important is putting the ideas to use. Experience, one often hears, is the best teacher, but that is true only if you reflect on it and extract its real lessons.

Four Leadership Frames
The topic of leadership has generated a mountain of books, articles and research studies. We’ve read a lot of it, though no one could wade through it all. Ideas go off in many different directions, producing conflicting schools of thought. Each version has its own ideas about how to understand and lead organizations. We have merged competing voices into an inclusive framework embracing four distinctive ideas about leadership. The ideas are powerful enough to capture the subtlety and complexity of leadership, yet simple enough to be helpful. Distilling our learning from thousands of managers and leaders and scores of organizations, we’ve condensed it all into four major frames—structural, human resource, political, and symbolic. Each frame tells a different story about leadership, and each offers a different path for leaders.

1. The structural frame: the leader as analyst
The structural frame depicts organizations as factories or machines, operating in a world that emphasizes rationality and structure. Structures—commonly depicted by organization charts—are designed to fit an organization’s strategy, environment and technology. Leaders allocate responsibilities (“division of labor”) and create rules, policies, procedures, systems, and hierarchies to coordinate diverse activities into a unified effort. Problems arise when structure doesn’t line up with current reality. At that point, some form of reorganization or redesign is needed to remedy the mismatch.
Jeff Bezos is completely at home is structural frame. He tracks the hundreds of metrics that Amazon uses to assess performance. He pays close attention to operational specifics, relentlessly attacks waste, sets demanding targets, and is vigilant about ensuring accountability. He uses Amazon’s many metrics and huge data-base as a treasure trove for continuous improvement.

2. The human resource frame: the leader as catalyst
The human resource frame sees organizations as families, and emphasizes the importance of people and relationships. Organizations need human talent and energy; people need the tangible and intangible rewards that workplaces can offer. Douglas McGregor wrote more than half a century ago that the essential task of management is to arrange things so that employees can achieve their personal goals by directing their efforts toward the goals of the organization. Research in the years since tells us that McGregor was right, though for many organizations this proposition still serves more as a pious platitude than a lived reality.
This lens was almost invisible in Jeff Bezos’s thinking and leadership until his new-found appreciation of empowerment. Perhaps he came to the same late-career realization that had struck other legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs at Apple and Phil Knight at Nike: customers don’t like to do buy stuff from companies that treat workers like dirt. Maybe Bezos got smarter about people by taking lessons from Zappos’ remarkable CEO, Tony Hsieh. Whatever the cause of this shift in perspective, Jeff Bezos seems to be getting the human resource frame.

3. The political frame: the leader as warrior
The political view sees organizations as coalitions of individuals and interest groups with enduring differences competing for power and scarce resources. Bargaining, negotiation, coercion, and compromise are part of everyday life. Coalitions form around specific interests, and change as issues come and go. Problems arise when power is concentrated in the wrong places or is so broadly dispersed that nothing gets done. Solutions arise from a leader’s political skill and acumen—as Machiavelli suggested centuries ago in The Prince.
Jeff Bezos has repeatedly proved himself to be a skilled battler, both inside and outside his business. For years, he fought to avoid paying state sales taxes in the U.S. -- until he decided that the fight was becoming counterproductive. Then he switched sides and threw Amazon’s weight behind a bill in Congress to force all his competition to pay sales taxes. Bezos has also shown political savvy in navigating Amazon’s many external battles with competitors and content-creators, including a major win in a battle with Apple and publishers over digital rights.

4. The symbolic frame: the leader as priest
The symbolic lens depicts organizations as cultures propelled by rituals, ceremonies, stories, heroes, and myths rather than by rules, policies, power, and managerial authority. Organizations are also theaters: actors play their roles in the drama while audiences form impressions from what they see on stage. Problems arise when actors play their parts badly, symbols lose their meaning, or ceremonies and rituals lose their potency. We have seen that Jeff Bezos is a rationalist committed to learning from the data, and a warrior who will fight doggedly to advance his business. But he is also the high priest of Amazon’s “culture of metrics.” He has an unshakeable faith in his holy trinity of customer service, long-term growth, and data-based decisions. Even when Amazon was a vulnerable fledgling, he ignored Wall Street critics who said the business was “toast” or complained that Amazon shared so little of its wealth with shareholders. In his quest to rule retailing he defended his faith, ignoring analysts and competitors and focusing only customers, data, and growth.

Multiframe Thinking
Each of the four frames has its own image of reality. You may be drawn to some and repelled by others. We have found that many human resource managers primarily operate in the structural and human resource frames. They often dislike politics and play it badly, weakening their ability to make a difference. In ignoring the symbolic dimension, they are often seen as rigid organizational functionaries and police officers, more interested in avoiding error and protecting management than building a great business.
Great leaders learn to use multiple frames. They reframe, consciously or intuitively, until they understand the situation at hand. They use multiple perspectives to develop a diagnosis of what’s really going on and what course of action might set things right. They need to do this because they operate in complex and messy circumstances that overwhelm simplistic thinking. The odds of success are higher for multiframe leaders who can approach situations from more than one angle. They draw on multiple frames to get a more complete picture of any situation. Less versatile leaders get in trouble because gaps in their thinking keep them from seeing or understanding some of the important challenges they face. They may, for example, be very good at handling technical problems, but mystified by issues of human emotion and motivation. Or they may find conflict so stressful that they can’t face political realities. They may trip over subtleties of customs and traditions that they’ve never learned to see, much less understand. Bad maps produce bad choices.

It all adds up to a simple truth, one that is easy to overlook because it is at odds with everyday experience. The world you perceive is constructed in your mind. Your ideas, or theories, determine whether a given situation is foggy or clear, mildly interesting or momentous, a paralyzing disaster or a genuine learning experience. In any situation, there is simply too much happening for you to attend to everything. Your personal theories or frames tell you what is important and what can be safely ignored, and they group scattered bits of information into manageable patterns. Thus it is vital to understand how your habits of mind influence what you see and what you miss or misread.

Multiframe thinking requires moving beyond narrow, mechanical approaches for understanding organizations. We cannot count the number of times managers have told us that they handled some problem the “only way” it could have been. Such statements betray a failure of both imagination and courage and reveal a paralyzing fear of uncertainty. It may be comforting to think that failure was unavoidable and that you did all you could. But it can be liberating to realize there is always more than one way to respond to any problem or dilemma. Those who master reframing report a liberating sense of choice, freedom, and power.

 Published in The HR Director, January, 2015.

By the authors of How Great Leaders Think: The Art of Reframing


Latest Issue

  • L&MB Magazine 6 - Q2, 2016

    L&MB Magazine 6 - Q2, 2016

    Leadership and Management books

    Subscribe now