A Roadside Conversation - A Leader's Story

by Bates, Suzanne Monday, November 28, 2011
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Speaking to the graduating class last year at Princeton University, Amazon.com Founder Jeff Bezos shared a story about a long drive in Texas with his grandparents. He was ten years old at the time.

His grandfather was driving on the highway. His grandmother sat in the passenger seat, smoking cigarettes. Recently Bezos had been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. The gist of it was that every puff of a cigarette reduced your life by two minutes. This intrigued him—purely as a mental math problem.

He thought about his grandmother’s smoking habits and made a bunch of calculations in his head. Finally he came up with the answer! He tapped his grandmother on the shoulder. “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off of your life!”

Bezos thought he would be applauded for his cleverness. So he was shocked when his grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather pulled over on the shoulder and got out of the car. Then he opened Jeff’s door and waited for him to get out.

Jeff had never heard a harsh word from his grandfather, a smart, quiet man. Would he get yelled at? Would he be forced to apologize?

His grandfather looked at him silently for several seconds. Then—calmly and gently—his grandfather said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

What’s the leadership lesson here? It’s very easy to focus on coming up with the right answer without considering how it may be heard by others. When you’re delivering news, you always need to anticipate how your audience might react.

This story is also a great example of how you can develop and deliver personal stories that highlight your brand. Bezos has said that “our goal is to be earth’s most customer-centric company.” And it’s working: Amazon was named the most trusted consumer brand earlier this year.

You have to wonder if that intense focus on the customer’s point of view grew out of that roadside conversation when he was ten years old.

What turning points have made you who you are as a business leader? Drill into the details, and you’re bound to end up with a story that highlights your leadership brand.