No guru, no method, no leader

Paul Nolan

If reading books by or about great business leaders is enlightening and inspiring, reading about business leaders who have attained significant success almost in spite of themselves is engrossing in a whole different manner.

That’s the sort of tale that Aimee Groth spins in her book “Kingdom of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh’s Zapponian Utopia.” Hsieh is an early Silicon Valley success story who led online shoe seller Zappos to $1 billion in annual sales and an eventual sale to Amazon in 2009.

He was rewarded with generational wealth from the Zappos sale, and quickly poured $350 million of that into a project to revive Downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos had relocated its headquarters. Officially called Downtown Project or DTP, the objective was to recruit hundreds of entrepreneurs to Las Vegas to launch startups and create the largest community-focused city in the world.

Groth, a freelance business journalist originally from Minneapolis who now lives in Brooklyn, met Hsieh early in this project. Her book is a candid recounting of being sucked into the bizarre, cult-like world of Hsieh and his disciples/wannabe entrepreneurs. We interview Aimee in this issue in our Closers Q&A on page 34. You get a taste of what she experienced there, but you have to read her book to get the full effect.

More than anything, Groth’s book reinforces the fact that “be different” is not a business plan. Leadership is about making tough decisions in tight spots. Groth and others who have watched Hsieh up close say with Downtown Project and at Zappos he runs away from conflict and tough conversations.

“Hsieh’s relentless happiness, mixed with his fear of conflict, makes it difficult to discuss the failure of Downtown Project,” writes journalist Paul Bradley Carr. “For one thing, he simply refuses to accept that anything has gone wrong.”

“The Kingdom of Happiness” is a reminder that you can learn equally important lessons from failed projects as those that enjoy over-the-top success. Hsieh continues to ride the wave created by his best-selling book about building a blast of a corporate culture, but you can have your name on a best-seller and the emperor still may not be wearing any clothes.