When Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian was freed from an Iranian prison in January after having been held for 18 months on vague charges of espionage, he traveled on a Swiss military aircraft to a U.S. base in Germany. A short time later the Post’s proprietor, Jeff Bezos (No.1, World’s Greatest Leaders), showed up to bring Rezaian home. “It’s an inescapable part of the mission of the Post to send some people into hostile environments,” reflects Bezos of Rezaian, who was detained while reporting in Iran. “And what happened to Jason and his wife, Yegi, is completely unfair, unjust—outrageous. I considered it a privilege to be able to go pick him up. I had dinner with them at the Army base the night that I got there, and then he was getting released after his debriefing the next day, and I asked him, ‘Where do you want to go? I’ll take you wherever you want.’ And he said, ‘How about Key West?’ I was like, ‘Okay!’ And that’s what I did. I dropped him off in Key West. He and Yegi had only been married for just over a year before he got imprisoned. It was almost like a second honeymoon.”
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A jubilant photo of reporter and owner inside the latter’s jet quickly made the rounds. Asked if he meant to make a statement by personally retrieving his employee, Bezos replies, “I did it just for Jason. My motivation is super simple. But I would be delighted if people take from it the idea that we’ll never abandon anybody.”
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More has gone right for Bezos lately than perhaps at any other time during his two-decade run in the public eye. His company is expanding internationally and spreading its hydra-headed product and service offerings in unexpected new directions. Bezos, too, is evolving. Always a fierce competitor and stern taskmaster, he has begun to show another side. With the Post, he’s taken a seat at the civic-leadership table. And with his various projects Bezos is also becoming known as a visionary on topics beyond dreaming up new ways to gut the profit margins of Amazon’s many foes.
Bezos is preternaturally consistent. He still preaches customer focus and long-term thinking. Yet of necessity, as Amazon has become massive—and as he has indulged his eclectic and time-consuming pursuits—he has become the sort of leader who empowers others. “He was at the center of everything at the beginning. The leadership wasJeff Bezos,” says Patty Stonesifer, the former Microsoft executive and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation CEO who has been on Amazon’s board for 19 years. “Today it’s not a hub-and-spoke connecting to him. He has become a great leader of leaders.” Indeed, his evolution portends dramatic repercussions far and wide: The possibilities of a less tethered Jeff Bezos are equal parts exciting (imagine what he’ll do) and terrifying (pity whom he’ll crush).
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When he bought the Post, there was speculation that Bezos wanted to control the editorial product. Bezos says he has no such interest, and Baron confirms Bezos doesn’t suggest coverage. However, the owner does throw his weight around on wonky issues like web-page load time and ease of subscription sign-ups, both examples of what Bezos likes to call matters of “customer obsession” that resonate with his Amazon experience. Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief product and technology officer, says that in his sphere Bezos is downright “pushy,” which he means as a compliment. For example, Bezos encouraged Prakash’s team to develop Arc, a collection of publishing tools, even though off-the-shelf products were available. Amazon, he told Prakash, could have used IBM software when it started out. Instead it built its own, a business that led to Amazon Web Services (AWS), a runaway financial success. “He’s involved. Very involved,” says Prakash, a former digital executive at Sears who joined the Post before Bezos’s purchase. “My engineers and I enjoy that a lot. I suspect Jeff enjoys that too.”
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Post people seem to value most that Bezos provides them air cover while they fiddle with ways to survive the transition from print to digital. Hiring has ramped up significantly under Bezos, providing more resources for serious journalism too. Ryan, the publisher, credits Bezos with demanding risk taking—without fear that failure will be punished. “That provides a sense of invigoration, particularly when other publications are in this mode of ‘If this doesn’t work, there’ll be hell to pay next quarter.’ ” So long as Bezos is enjoying himself, in other words, there is no next-quarter deadline for the Post anymore, just more opportunities to reinvent journalism, preferably in a way that eventually makes money.
Link to the rest at Fortune and thanks to Tom for the tip.