Jeff Bezos finds a masterful leadership lesson in a story about doing a handstand

Jeff Bezos
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Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos provided an update about his e-commerce behemoth in his annual letter to shareholders published Wednesday.

Nestled midway through the narrative, the billionaire tech boss revealed a lesson about achieving high standards. He illustrates with an anecdote about a yoga handstand.

Bezos shares the story of a "close friend" who was determined to do a "perfect handstand" — "No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good," Bezos writes in the annual letter.

To learn, she took a handstand workshop and practiced for a while with little success. "So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists," Bezos writes.

The handstand coach gave Bezos' friend some very insightful advice: "'Most people,' he said, 'think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you're just going to end up quitting,'" Bezos writes.

The lesson resonated for Bezos — if a leader is not honest about what it takes to achieve a goal, that can actually diminish the likelihood of others achieving it.

"Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be — something this coach understood well," Bezos writes.

Amazon now has more than 100 million paid Prime members
Amazon now has more than 100 million paid Prime members

Bezos illustrates the point with an example at Amazon — to prep for meetings, employees there write "structured" six-page memos, explains Bezos.

"Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely," he says.

"Here's what we've figured out," Bezos writes. "Often, when a memo isn't great, it's not the writer's inability to recognize the high standard, but instead a wrong expectation on scope," he explains.

Some employees "mistakenly believe a high-standards, six-page memo can be written in one or two days or even a few hours, when really it might take a week or more!" writes Bezos. "They're trying to perfect a handstand in just two weeks, and we're not coaching them right," he says.

Instead, "great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind. They simply can't be done in a day or two," he writes.

"The key point here is that you can improve results through the simple act of teaching scope — that a great memo probably should take a week or more," explains Bezos.

Further, to accomplish something with excellence, an individual has to know what excellence looks like.

That may be easy with a handstand, but not so much with something like the memos, which "is much squishier," he writes. "It would be extremely hard to write down the detailed requirements that make up a great memo," it's more, you know it when you see it. But "The standard is there, and it is real, even if it's not easily describable," he says.

Luckily, high standards are teachable, says Bezos.

"[P]eople are pretty good at learning high standards simply through exposure," says Bezos. "High standards are contagious. Bring a new person onto a high standards team, and they'll quickly adapt."

However, it's important to remember that just because you have high standards in one area does not mean you have them in all domains, Bezos says.

"Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It's critical to be open to that likelihood," he writes.

After all, admits Bezos, "I certainly can't do a handstand myself...."

See also:

Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person
Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest person

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