Yin Leader: Tony Hsieh


In the West, we tend to emphasize leaders who are competitive, aggressive, outgoing and charismatic (a.k.a. extroverted). Extroversion is yang. Yin leaders are different. This series highlights those differences, pointing to effective leaders from today and throughout history that exemplify the other side of leadership. In truth, we need both kinds of leaders to be healthy and balanced in our organizations.

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of the online retailer Zappos.com. He is a great example of a yin leader who is challenging the status quo of yang-driven organizational thinking. He, along with the help of Brian Robertson, has created a somewhat controversial alternate culture at Zappos called a holacracy. This is a clear move away from top-down hierarchal organization aimed at creating a culture of self-governance and higher levels of autonomy. The holacracy is intentionally leaderless. All titles within the organization have been laid aside.

What holds the organization and employees together? Instead of people, position, and authority being the substances that hold things together, Zappos relies on a clear understanding and deep buy in of the shared corporate values. Those that are part of the team at Zappos believe so deeply in the values that 50% of their ongoing evaluation consists in evaluating how consistently they are living them out. This is a brilliant move on Hsieh’s part and only something a yin leader could or would do.

In a recent interview, Tony explains the way he sees himself as related to the organization. He uses the metaphor of a greenhouse to describe most organizations. There are a lot of plants in the greenhouse. The leader is typically the tallest and strongest plant that all the other plants aspire to be.  Tony sees himself not as that tall plant, but rather as the greenhouse architect creating a perfect environment for the plants to flourish and grow into what they were meant to be.[1]

Yang, the philosophy that shapes most companies, is based on independence, ego and power. Yin is the opposite. At Zappos and with Hsieh, it’s not about independence, ego or power but instead about interdependence, humility and the empowerment of all employees. It’s not about competing to be the biggest plant, but being the thoughtful architect behind the scenes. In fact, that kind of humility is embodied in the core values of Zappos. Core value #10 is “Be humble.” This is more evidence of the yinness of Tony and the company he and Brian are shaping at Zappos.

Yin leaders are not about power, titles or authority per se. They are not about ego or individualistic gains. They see life through an interdependent lens and leverage their leadership influence to help achieve group-determined results as one of the group and for the sake of the group. They thrive in building strong cultures and by being the keeper and embodiment of those values, leading by example. Tony Hsieh is definitely shaking up the organizational and leadership world. Recently fourteen percent of the workforce at Zappos took him up on his offer to leave the company if they weren’t willing to fully embrace the holacracy. Tony is certainly living out what Simon Sinek preaches, living and working with those who believe what we believe, who deeply share common values. By the way, here are Zappos core values in case you’re interested.

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

[1] Ryssdal, K. (2010). Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh: Full interview transcript. Retrieved from: www.marketplace.org.

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