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Leading Innovation – Lessons from Amazon

Apple, Google, Amazon….it appears the world is being dominated by innovators who operate on a huge scale. As schools face a period of massive change and must innovate to thrive, perhaps there are lessons that school leaders can take from these powerhouses.

Leading innovation was the focus of the recent QASSP study tour to the west coast of the U.S.A. As well as being blown away by the amazing facilities at Apple Park, hosted by professors at Stanford, gurus at Microsoft and the CEO of Fierce Inc, we were enriched by the presentation from Amazon’s Leadership Institute manager, Aimee Windmiller-Wood on Amazon’s 14 Principles of Leadership.

According to CEO Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s constant drive for innovation is rooted in a competitive, demanding, exacting organisational culture and this has a lot to do with its success.

It is the fusion of Amazon’s culture and brand that powers the company. Everyone is singularly focused on one thing: excellence on behalf of the customer. No one needs to expend extra energy figuring out what to do or how to behave to achieve what Amazon wants its brand to stand for in the world.

Bezos argues that if you don’t proactively design and nurture the culture you want, it will form all on its own. And the culture that is shaped for you, might not be one that serves you. Bezos went a bit deeper on an additional aspect of their winning culture, explaining that Amazon invests a great deal of energy in cultivating an atmosphere of “high standards.”

Amazon uses the following 14 Leadership Principles every day, whether they are discussing innovative ideas or deciding on the best approach to solving a problem. I was fascinated by their principles and interested in how they might present in a school context.

Customer Obsession

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Are leaders in your school obsessed with customers and keeping customer trust?


Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say, “that’s not my job.”

Do leaders act as ambassadors for the Department as a whole and not just advocate for your school?

Invent and Simplify

Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here.” As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Do your leaders look externally for ways to simplify and innovate?

Are Right, A Lot

Leaders are right a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.

Are your leaders well informed from a variety of sources and decisive?

Learn and Be Curious

Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

Are your leaders involved in professional development and active in learning networks?

Hire and Develop the Best

Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others. We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.

Are you developing the next generation of education leaders?

Insist on the Highest Standards

Leaders have relentlessly high standards — many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and drive their teams to deliver high quality products, services, and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Do your leaders confront under-performance or turn a blind eye? Are they willing to have those difficult conversations and address issues?

Think Big

Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Are your leaders brave, bold and thinking big or tinkering on the fringe?

Bias for Action

Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

Is your school decisive and ambitious in implementing change or is change a long drawn out process of ‘death by a thousand cuts’?


Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention. There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.

Are you getting bang for your buck from your leaders? Are they making an impact on student learning or are they making more work for teachers?

Earn Trust

Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odour smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Do your leaders see their work as supporting classroom teachers to do their best work or is there an ‘us vs them’ mentality?

Dive Deep

Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are sceptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.

How much time do your leaders actually spend in classrooms and out of admin?

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Can your leadership team argue their case passionately behind closed doors and then present a united front to staff?

Deliver Results

Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

How do you know what impact your leadership team and initiatives are actually having?



Ladd, B. (2018, December 27). These Tools Are Why Amazon Is Successful.

Thompson, S. (2018, June 25). Why Jeff Bezos Puts Relentless Focus on Amazon’s Company Culture

Yohn, D. L., & Yohn, D. L. (2018, March 13). Company culture doesn’t need to be “warm and fuzzy” to be effective