Alibaba CEO Jack Ma: If You Want Your Life to Be Simple, Don’t Be the Leader
Being the leader is not the fun job. But if it’s right for you, nothing else will do.
Chief Executive Officer of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma (Ma Yun)
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
As founder and CEO of LearnVest, which got acquired by Northwestern Mutual two years ago, I've learned that you're never done growing when it comes to leadership. There are days where you're great, and days where you're nowhere close. So I'm always stretching myself to evolve and get better at leading.
I recently heard Alibaba CEO Jack Ma give a brilliant speech, and his perspective burned me to my core. Here are three of my takeaways:
1. You have to have love
Ma spoke about the three types of IQ you need as a leader -- IQ and EQ, which are well known, but also LQ, which is the love quotient. You have to genuinely love your team and what you're working towards together, because as you grow and the world gets more intense, there needs to be a larger purpose than just what's happening in your office day to day.
And on a really practical level, you have to love your team because their lives are in your hands. I'm writing this from a snowstorm on a day when I'm responsible for making sure my entire staff is safe. On many occasions over the last eight years, I've had people say, "Aren't you in charge? Why can't you make your own schedule?" And I've always joked that being a leader is the exact opposite of that. It's actually being the humble servant to the talent, to make sure they get what they need, and you understand where they need to go.
2. Being the chairman is not the fun job
Jack Ma is the chairman of tens of thousands of employees. Though he makes it look easy, his life is not. He said it simply: "If you want your life to be simple, you shouldn't be a leader." My scale is much smaller, but the pressure is still there. The second anything goes wrong, I have to fix it, whether it's 6 a.m. on a Wednesday, a Sunday, or during my best friend's birthday party.
In the early days of LearnVest, I was the one who cleaned up our office when it was messy. I didn't want to be embarrassed when people came over. One investor arrived and saw me scrubbing the bathroom with Clorox wipes. She laughed and said, "That is someone who literally rolls up her sleeves to get things done." No one ever wrote that up in my leadership plan.
3. You must push people
When it comes to solving really hard problems, Ma has a famous quote that I love: "Today is hard. Tomorrow will be worse. But the day after that will be beautiful. Most of your talent won't make it past tomorrow." But as a leader, you must inspire people through those hardest times: To stick with it, to move through it, and to see past it so they can make it to the day where things are beautiful. That's when you're really innovating. You have get your team there.
I'm a dropout of Harvard Business School, but I took a very helpful leadership class while I was there that really stuck with me. We discussed looking at problems from every angle, and looking at the person inside the puzzle. See their picture, their concern, their point of view, and understand that people feel passionately the way they do. Your job is to see the 360º and come up with the answers.
On the flip side, you have to balance this by pushing people to their boundaries. How do you get there, if most people don't make it past Jack Ma's tomorrow? You ache to get talent to do things they've never done before. And that's hard.
During my Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute, we read leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Machiavelli to Margaret Thatcher to Jack Welch to Ghandi. We met Madeleine Albright. What struck me is that there are all these different types of leaders who are all responsible for solving different equations. As you're seeing everyone's position, you realize nothing is ever black or white.
I'm still on the journey to becoming the kind of leader I want to be. I want to know: What are your lessons on leadership? I am certain I can learn more!