The tributes to Tony Hsieh have been pouring in, as they should. I cannot think of any other leader who changed the work environment’s trajectory more than him. Some may say Steve Jobs or others of that ilk, but Hsieh’s differences from the Jobs’ model were stark. Rather than following Jobs’ model of using control tactics and Jobs’ own preferred aesthetic to create perfect products, Hsieh took the opposite approach. He made a “radical” new work environment that honored employee individuality, allowed employee agency, and allowed employee autonomy.
He allowed for so much autonomy Zappo’s even implemented an organizational holacracy, a self-managed workforce, using a decentralized flat structure, and including no managers. Although in 2017, Zappo’s evolved their design to a hybrid-holacracy, Hsieh still had the radical instinct to try.
His results – some may say he did pretty, pretty, pretty good. Hsieh sold to Amazon in 2009 for 1.2 Billion and remained its CEO until this year. Proving that if you treat your employees like human beings, they, in turn, will treat their customers like human beings. Which appears to be a very good business model.
I compare him to a Wizard Of Oz who actually left the curtain open. So much so, his loyal customers wanted to see how the magic happened. Hsieh opened the company’s HQs to people like me to tour the office, talk to team members, and leave with about 8 free books on all things talent management. Let’s just say I had to pay a luggage upcharge on my return flight.
Frankly, it was a yellow-brick-road moment for me and all others looking to make workplaces better. Now 10ish-years since I toured Zappo’s HQ, the Zappos way almost seems passe. But only because his model was adopted on such a grand scale, that “that way” is now pretty standard.
Fast forward to 2020.
In August, without fanfare, he walked away from it all.
And in November, he suddenly died.
In a fire.
While barricaded (from the inside) in a shed.
Who was, over many months, allegedly abusing a variety of intoxicants.
And had a public penchant for fire and creating pyrotechnic spectacles.
And disassociated himself from loved ones and friends.
While bouncing from one grandiose project, idea, and next new thing over and over.
In short, he needed help.
I’m not a doctor. I never met Hiesh. I don’t know if he had a mental illness or an addiction, or any physical ailments. I also have no idea if these issues were prevalent while he led Zappos. But, we don’t need to be doctors to know he needed help.
Why is help elusive?
- Many think they are too small to ask for help. Others too big.
- In the workplace, as in life, many think being anxious or tired or on a spin or stressed out is expected, so they tough “feeling bad” out.
- Many don’t know that suicide, anxiety, and addiction stats are formidably high. Instead, they think it is only them who suffer.
- Others were raised to believe that asking for help for any one of these issues is a weakness.
- Others have been bread by poor leaders asking for help for any one of these issues is a career-breaker.
- Still, others who aren’t afraid to ask for help don’t know where or how to.
My Hope For Tony Hiesh’s Legacy:
Tony Hsieh’s family made this statement about his legacy. It is a good one.
“Instead of being distracted by the events that lead to Tony’s death, we, as a family, are focusing on ways to carry on his legacy with the support of the world and those who loved him.”
I, however, hope his legacy more significant than a workplace win. That’s too small. Hsieh didn’t play small. I hope his legacy provides a snapshot of the complexity of human beings. I hope his death inspires people to study the complexity of his life, including wins and losses, elations and struggles, bouts of manic genius, and quiet contemplation.
I hope his entire story, including his end, will inspire more to de-stigmatize people who struggle (mentally, physically) and make it easier to receive help. And if those human lessons breakthrough as much as his workplace lessons, Hsieh will have the legacy he deserves. And will have taught us how to deliver happiness in more significant ways than he could have imagined.
Dawn Burke, VP of Talent Consulting at Kinetix and founder/advisor for Dawn Burke HR, is an HR leader, speaker, and writer specializing in new HR practices, engagement and workplace culture. Her HR/recruiting/leadership career has spanned the last 20 years, with past gigs including a foundational role as VP of People for Birmingham, AL’s award-winning technology company, Daxko (And yes, Kris Dunn and Dawn are making Bham the HR capital of the world! Who knew?). You can also check her out at DawnHBurke.com and a variety of other interesting places. Google her, it’ll keep you posted on what she is up to.
Most importantly: She is addicted to TV, knows most of the lyrics to Hamilton and West Side Story, loves to cry at movies (check out Cinema Paradiso for a cry fest!), thinks wine, a wheel of Brie and Milk Duds make a well-balanced dinner, and sings in her car daily. Her husband and cat are the Yin to her Yang.