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Bold Leader Spotlight: Tony Hsieh, Founder and CEO of Zappos

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Different leaders exhibit different leadership philosophies. Some have a leadership style that is highly engaging and dynamic. Others invite a greater degree of circumstance and serendipity. But few are probably said to adopt a leadership philosophy of happiness as their foundation. However, that is exactly what Tony Hsieh, founder and CEO of Zappos, chose to do. And as it turns out, this leadership philosophy has empowered Hsieh as one of today’s boldest leaders.

cartoon caricature of Tony Hsieh of Zappos, with his leadership philosophy, posing as the bold leader spotlight of the week
The leadership philosophy of Tony Hsieh is about empowering employees.

While Hsieh’s leadership has enabled Zappos to excel in many ways, it has also made tremendous impacts outside the company. The leadership philosophy that focuses on happiness as a common denominator extends its effects beyond’s employees and customers. And in fact, it is improving the lives of thousands in his community and society-at-large. Though certainly not traditional by any means, Hsieh’s bold leadership is clearly worthy of admiration.

When the Leadership Philosophy is Happiness, Culture is Everything

One of the important bold leadership traits involves empowering others and instilling confidence so they may reach their full potential. For Hsieh, this comes second nature. Hsieh launched LinkExchange in 1996 with cofounder Sanjay Madan. Without question, the web advertising company was a tremendous success eventually being sold for $265 million to Microsoft. But for Hsieh, the money and profits were not the most important. Instead, his leadership philosophy saw a culture of happiness and fun as being essential for real success.

At Zappos, Hsieh has insisted on this leadership philosophy as the company’s cornerstone. And he clearly demonstrates bold leadership in his ability to empower others toward success while instilling confidence. In fact, in March of 2015, Hsieh made Zappos employees “the offer” to be bought out of the company. Introducing a new self-management plan called “holacracy,” he wanted individuals to excel through their own creativity. Though 18 percent of the company’s employees chose the offer, Zappos has benefited since. And the culture of happiness has lived on as a result.

Bold Leadership in Challenging the Norm

Truly bold leaders are willing to take risks for the betterment of the company and for others. Likewise, they gladly challenge the status quo in the process, shaking things up. A leadership philosophy based on happiness might imply that stability might be preferred. But this is not the case for Hsieh. In fact, his decision to eliminate company hierarchies introduced greater opportunities for adaptability. And by acknowledging everyone’s “weirdness,” he was able to blend happiness and a change mentality together effectively.

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At Zappos, Hsieh’s leadership philosophy invites many practices that are certainly not mainstream. For example, he is obsessed with customer service, encouraging employees to spend as much time with customers as needed. The current record for the longest customer call actually exceeds 10 hours in duration. Likewise, he pursues relationships with vendors that go well beyond the bottom line and extend into social values. These are risks that invite change and demonstrate how unique Hsieh’s leadership philosophy is.

Bold in Leadership, Humble in Spirit, and Committed to Community

In 2009, Amazon purchased Zappos for $1.2 billion. For many CEO’s that would be a game-changer in terms of lifestyle and focus. But for Hsieh, these changes were not what you might expect. Hsieh continues to reside in a trailer park in Las Vegas where he pays $1000 a month in rent. He shares the community laundry, kitchen, and pantry with other residents. And he enjoys sharing stories and playing games around the campfire with fellow acquaintances there. By all accounts, his leadership philosophy is a unique one.

Of course, Hsieh does much more than embrace a humble attitude. He is bold in his generosity and commitment to making the world a better place. His latest effort in this regard involves “The Downtown Project” in Las Vegas. Hsieh has invested $350 million in revitalizing the area through investments in both real estate and businesses. The project has already created over 1,500 jobs and made a $209 million economic impact for the community. This is just another example of how a leadership philosophy based on happiness can be quite bold.

Tony Hsieh and His Bold Leadership Philosophy in a Nutshell

Hsieh is a bold leader, and at the same time, he embraces a leadership philosophy based on happiness. In breaking this leadership philosophy down further, three key aspects can be highlighted. First, work-life balance and integration offer happiness and life satisfaction. Secondly, choosing a life path that is personally fulfilling and has meaning brings about joy. And being able to contribute to society and give to others further enhances these qualities. As a bold leader, Hsieh has not only pursued these attributes himself but also enabled others to do the same. Despite a truly unique approach in his leadership philosophy, Tony Hsieh is clearly among one of the boldest leaders in the world today.

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