How humility works as a leadership strength in the case of Jack Ma

Leaders in business and politics continue to pay high prices for arrogance. Just one example is the Trump administration, which has suffered from chaos and trust issues due in part to the high turnover rate of White House cabinet members, arguably a result from a president who’s not willing to listen. An antidote to that is humility, which has become an increasingly powerful competitive advantage for those who recognize and capture its value. Humility deserves a fairer evaluation in order to better serve leaders and organizations, as for too long it has been considered a vulnerability in leadership.

I studied charisma and humility in my master’s thesis on How These Characteristics of Presidential Candidates Influence Presidential Election and Retention in America. This blog is the first in a series of blogs where I will analyze how humility functions as a valuable asset for some of the greatest leaders worldwide, starting with Jack Ma, the founder and chairman of Alibaba Group.

 

September 2009, on Alibaba’s 10th anniversary celebration in Hangzhou, China, the company had grown into a team that filled 16,000 seats of the Yellow Dragon Stadium. The audience was full of cheers and applause when Jack Ma took the stage in a leather outfit, long white wig, and a wild-colored lipstick. Unlike other typical billionaire CEOs on this important night, Jack started to sing, like a ludicrous punk from the 70s. People outside of the company assumed him to be crazy and weird, but it wasn’t surprising at all for his employees; that was exactly their Jack, a guy they joke with everyday who just happens to be their boss.

(Jack Ma (center), together with his managers perform at the firm’s 10th anniversary celebration)

Jack Ma, the founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, has become one of the richest men in the world with a net worth of $46.9 billion. In the past 19 years, the e-commerce conglomerate has won a war with eBay in China, made the biggest IPO in the history of NYSE, and become one of the world’s largest technology companies and the world’s largest retail platform in terms of revenue. Jack was also ranked second in Fortune‘s 2017 “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list.

Jack’s success as an entrepreneur and a leader can be credited to his judgement, strong will, and courage, but most importantly, to his distinctive charisma blended with humility that draws brilliant people to him and keeps them with him. His selflessness and genuine care for others are defining traits of his leadership. And this particular leadership style draws followers by crystallizing a mindset in them –  that is “I have faith in this person, and I want to be part of what he/she is doing.”

Humility & Leadership: How Jack Ma Does It

Let us first take a look at the humility embodied in the leadership style of Jack Ma, before analyzing how humility functions as a leadership competitive advantage using the example of Jack.

Jack came from a humble beginning. He started his career back in 1995 in his hometown Hangzhou, working as an English teacher making $12 USD a month. After his first trip to the U.S., where he was introduced to the Internet, he built the first Chinese internet company called “China Pages,” an English-language directory for Chinese companies and information, in the hope of attracting business and visitors overseas to China. While he failed to convince the Chinese government to corporate with China Pages on providing information, he realized how important it was for China to enter the international market before it was too late. “It doesn’t matter if I failed; at least I passed a concept to others. Even if I don’t succeed, someone will succeed one day,” he said in 1995 in a documentary.

In 1999, Jack took another shot at an internet idea. When the tide of the Internet finally came, he saw an opportunity to help small businesses in China sell more products domestically and globally. He founded Alibaba with 17 other people in his apartment. It often puzzles people how Jack convinced his co-founders to embrace such an audacious, unthinkable idea back in 1999 in China, and to be willingly led by a person with no money, no computer background or any government relations. A deeper dive in his personality and leadership style resolves the puzzlement.

(Jack and some early members of Alibaba)

Interestingly, Jack himself is never the center of his dreams, ambitions, or even thinking process. It’s always about doing good to his home country and empowering other people. A constant message Jack sends to his employees is that what they do is “making it easier to do business across the world,” and that this ease brings positive change that ripples through society. In a letter he sent to “Ali people” after the company’s IPO, he crowned their success to the reform and opening of China, and to the fortune of living in the era of the internet. He did not, however, applaud himself.

This egolessness and self-forgetfulness seems almost idiosyncratic in his level of accomplishment. However, this self-forgetfulness is paradoxically what has made Jack so successful as a leader.

Another remarkable aspect of Jack’s humility is a great level of empathy and genuine care for people. Jean Liu, the president of Didi Chuxing, the Chinese equivalent of Uber, and a longtime friend of Jack, learned from family friends that Jack repetitively visited a seamstress, whom he gets his clothes tailored by, after learning she was ill. “He genuinely cares about the people around him, ” Liu says.

After choosing to step down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2013, Jack devoted himself to advocating for causes related to the environment, health care, women’s empowerment, and education. He became the chairman of the board for The Nature Conservancy’s China Program, has hosted the annual Alibaba Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship, and has donated personal wealth to hospitals and schools in rural areas.

(Jack speaking at 2017 Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship)

How Humility Works

Since humility is a broad personality trait that is open to various interpretation, there are many ways to demonstrate it. In my master’s thesis, I defined humility as “a virtue allowing people to have an accurate self-assessment and think less of themselves.” I also created a five-item scale to measure humility; they are openness, tolerance and forgiveness, an accurate self-assessment, self-forgetfulness, and being highly secure.

Management expert Ken Blanchard says: “People with humility do not think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.” (Dasa, 2014) JP Tangney also defines humility in her 2000 work, Humility: Theoretical Perspectives, Empirical Findings and Directions for Future Research, as “a relatively low self-focus, a ‘forgetting of the self,’ while recognizing that one is but one part of the larger universe.” The two definitions depict Jack’s humility best.

Jack has a very distinctive way of embodying humility. His most noteworthy aspects of humility are selflessness and genuine care, which are also the aspects of humility the article focuses on.

This type of humility serves as a leadership strength in two ways: first in creating a sense of inclusion (for existing employees), or a predilection to be included (for indirect stakeholders or even general public). Second, it inspires trust and loyalty.

A Harvard Business Review survey conducted globally among 1,500 workers found that “when employees observed altruistic or selfless behavior in their managers…they were more likely to report feeling included in their work teams,” and what’s more, “they were more likely to report engaging in team citizenship behavior, going beyond the call of duty, picking up the slack for an absent colleague.”

In Jack’s case, he is able to direct his ego away from himself in order to lead the company to a greater good, in benefiting both stakeholders and humanity at large. It makes it possible to instill a bigger-than-oneself sense of mission in his employees and cultivate a strong morale of championing for a shared cause.

With this type of humility, leaders are also able to inspire trust and loyalty by demonstrating genuine care and compassion.

Trust and loyalty don’t come naturally with a title; they have to be earned. According to an article published in Forbes, one important factor in earning trust is compassion; “People put faith in those who care beyond themselves.”  President of Logos Consulting Group Helio Fred Garcia said in a Columbia Leadership Course that followers tend to describe a great leader in three ways, one being a sense of protection and affection from that leader. The other two are an identification that they have something in common and a sense of that person is further along in capacity than they are.

When it comes to Jack, humility enables Jack not only to care for his people, but also to abandon the autocratic management style that he grew up with in China and to be open to different opinions and feedback. In an article in 2015 in the peer reviewed journal Global Journal of Management and Business Research, Chanttel Tham Jo Ee analyzed Alibaba’s management style stating that Jack’s style is highly advantageous in terms of “engendering loyalty from the employees, and leading to a lower labor turnover.” When people feel well taken care of and that their feelings, contributions, and opinions matter, trust and loyalty in leadership are natural outcomes.

 

Conclusion

Through a thorough study of charisma and humility in my thesis, I concluded that a prophetic vision is one of the attributes that make a leader charismatic. Nevertheless, vision itself is not enough. Humility lends credibility and persuasiveness to that vision, as well as to that leader.

One of the key factors that contributes to Jack’s success is his sincerity and trustworthiness, and consequently his ability to make others believe his idea. Even with President Trump, who is all about “America first” and anti-globalization, Jack was able to sell a China-U.S. e-commerce partnership proposal. It is his humility that makes his vision so convincing that the idea of fighting with him or under his lead so irresistible.

That is how humility sparkles in leadership.

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