Clay Shirky
NYU Interactive Telecommunications Professor

Why Amazon Awards Success Without Permission

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Our two great visions of leadership -- the grand visionary and the micro-manager -- no longer make sense.

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address, among other things, the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1996. His columns and writings have appeared in Business 2.0, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and Wired.
Question: How has business leadership changed because of the Internet?  

Clay Shirky: the question of leadership is really interesting, because for most businesses, really, at this point, the loss of control they fear is already in the past. Right? There was a media environment in which almost any message about IBM that was in the public was created by IBM and then circulated via press release, or reported by a newspaper, or what have you. 
And then of course, there was, you know, word-of-mouth, chatter on the street kinds of stuff, but that all operated at a level so much smaller than anything a large company could produce.  The biggest change in leadership, I think, is that those days are over and there’s... the range of choices leaders have about the perception of their company has been quite, quite restricted because the counter-story we’ll always get at as well, and it’s just much more of a dialogue of the public. 
So the two great visions of leadership we have, like, the "grand visionary" or the "micro-manager" now seem to me not to work as well.  The Internet has kind of compressed the range.  And leadership has become instead a combination of infusing a company with whatever the core imperatives are and making sure that the company doesn’t overbalance to far in one direction or another. 
So, Amazon, to take just one example—Amazon has my favorite corporate award ever in the history of corporate awards.  They have an award that you can only win as an employee, if you do something great and you didn’t ask permission first.  Right?  Other awards you can get if you asked permission, if you cleared things with your bosses, but if you do something really good and you just saw that it was a possibility and you did it, you get a special award for not having ask permission.  And that’s an example of something that, to your earlier point about your friend, lowers the amount of internal communication required, and also sets a cultural norm for the business that no amount of memos and mission statements could possibly say.  And that kind of leadership, what Bezos does, I think, in terms of creating a cultural climate where good ideas are rewarded matters so much more than, you know, either "grand visionary" or "micro-manager" in this environment.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

  • Dystopia is a Closed System

    Clay Shirky: If we end up forestalling or shutting down one way or another the open Internet in the name of you keeping Hollywood safe, or fighting off viruses, I think it will be a huge loss for humankind.