4 Lessons About Leadership and Prioritization We Can Learn from the Late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

December 10, 2020
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On November 27, 2020, Tony Hsieh, retired Zappos CEO, died tragically at the age of 46. Hsieh joined online shoe and clothing company Zappos in 1999 as an adviser and investor, later becoming CEO and growing the retailer to an over $1 billion valuation. Prior to that, he co-founded the advertising network LinkExchange, which was purchased by Microsoft when Hsieh was only 24. Since his passing, many stories and articles have been published detailing his legacy, his success, and his widespread admiration. A fascinating takeaway from the impact of Tony Hsieh, though, is the way he prioritized his time.

He managed his time by creating and distributing a priority list to his employees, investors, vendors, and business partners. To be granted a meeting with Mr. Hsieh, one of the items on his list had to be addressed. This list was short, only 16 items, but covered both business and personal priorities. Surprisingly, Zappos' areas of focus and top priorities were down at #5 on his list. At the top were items such as honoring prior commitments (existing meetings, etc.), putting out high priority fires, keeping on top of email, etc. These are all things that, as leaders, we know we must prioritize. In my opinion, the more interesting items on Mr. Hsieh's priority list were the ones that directly addressed his mental and physical health. He emphasized getting sleep, taking a certain number of steps a day, maintaining traditions that improve/reinforce personal and business relationships, reading at least one book a month, amongst other things.

To me, there are 4 lessons leaders can all learn about prioritization and leadership from Tony Hsieh:

  • Prioritize yourself. Mental and physical health should never take a back seat. In a tough year with more challenges than we know what to do with, it's crucial to set aside time for yourself. Maintain your mental and physical health every single day.
  • Make your priorities known. Hsieh's Executive Assistant was aware of his priorities and helped him stay accountable. Those who wished to schedule a meeting, phone call, or requested Mr. Hsieh's time knew they had to meet one of his priorities. To lead effectively, your team must know where your priorities lie, so they aren't severely detracting from your ability to reach your goals. "Zoom fatigue" can be cured by prioritizing meetings and creating a list of your primary concerns that you are willing to meet with people to discuss.
  • Keep people at the top of your list. Reinforcing/improving personal and professional relationships was #6 on Mr. Hsieh's list. Leadership is all about people; motivate and inspire your team to achieve something that adds value to themselves, the business, and those they care about.
  • Take note of which people/meetings are energy draining and which are energy-producing. Prioritize those energy-producing calls, one-on-ones, touch bases, conferences, etc., and allow them to invigorate you.

Someone with Tony Hsieh's caliber of success saying, "If you aren't helping me maintain personal/professional relationships, get sleep, be active, decompress, etc., then I have to direct my energy elsewhere," is huge. As a leader, if your mental and physical health is not prioritized, then you can't lead to the best of your ability. You must make your priorities known, designate time and effort to relationships, and allow positive energy from certain people and meetings to carry you forward.

Image source: Hsieh, Tony. (2013, October 18). [Facebook update]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/tonyhsieh/photos/649998475051276