Monthly Archives: October 2015

Knowledge@Wharton: Jack Ma: China’s First Global Leader

In the new edition of Discover Your Truth North, bestselling author Bill George profilesJackMaDYTN nearly 50 new leaders, including Warren Buffett, Indra Nooyi, Arianna Huffington, Paul Polman, Mike Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, and others.

In the following excerpt from Discover Your True North, George explains how Jack Ma became China’s first global leader and how other leaders can develop global intelligence, or “GQ.”

Alibaba’s Jack Ma has emerged as China’s first truly global leader, the face of the new China: a free-enterprise entrepreneur working within the confines of a Communist government to build a more equitable society.

Ma was on fire as we talked over lunch the day that Alibaba launched the largest initial public offering (IPO) in history. Its stock price makes Alibaba the eighteenth-largest global company by market capitalization. Ma’s goal isn’t making money. Because of Alibaba’s success, he is already China’s wealthiest citizen, with a $20 billion net worth. Yet when he asked his wife whether it was more important to be wealthy or have respect, they agreed upon respect.

In person, Ma is warm, affable, open, and authentic. For all his success, he is extremely humble, preferring to talk about building a great company that helps customers, creates jobs, and serves society. “I’m just a purist. I don’t spend 15 minutes thinking about making money,” he said. “What is important in my life is influencing many people as well as China’s development. When I am by myself, I am relaxed and happy.” He added, “They call me ‘Crazy Jack.’ I hope to stay crazy for the next 30 years.”

China’s large and growing economy has made it an increasing economic force the past two decades, but it has not produced global companies. Instead, Chinese businesses have focused domestically and engaged in low-cost production for international companies. Ma has a very different approach. He sees the Internet as a worldwide phenomenon that knows no borders. Today, the Alibaba companies serve 600 million customers in 240 countries. Ma intends to expand aggressively in the American, European, and emerging markets by linking 1 million small businesses with 2 billion Asian consumers. He also has plans to disrupt China’s commercial banking and insurance sectors.

“I want to create one million jobs, change China’s social and economic environment, and make it the largest Internet market in the world.” –Jack Ma

In the times I have been with him, Ma relishes telling his life story. Raised in humble origins in Hangzhou in the 1980s, he overcame one obstacle after another. He was rejected at virtually every school he applied to, even grade schools, because he didn’t test well in math.

Yet he persevered. From ages 12 to 20, he rode his bicycle 40 minutes to a hotel where he could practice his English. “China was opening up, and a lot of foreign tourists went there,” he said. “I showed them around as a free guide. Those eight years changed me deeply, as I became more globalized than most Chinese. What foreign visitors told us was different from what I learned from my teachers and books.”

As a young man, Ma applied for jobs at 30 companies and was rejected at every one. He seemed most stung by his experience at Kentucky Fried Chicken where 24 people applied and 23 got jobs. Ma was the only applicant rejected. Consequently, he became an English teacher at Hangzhou Electronics Technology College. When he visited America for the first time in 1999, he was stunned by the entrepreneurial culture he saw in California. “I got my dream from America,” he said. “In the evenings in Silicon Valley, the roads were full of cars, and all the buildings had lights on. That’s the vision of what I wanted to create [at home in China].”

Returning to Hangzhou, he and Joe Tsai (now executive vice chair) founded Alibaba in Ma’s modest apartment. “We chose the name,” he explained, “because people everywhere associate it with ‘Open, Sesame,’ the command Ali Baba used to open doors to hidden treasures in One Thousand and One Nights.” Ma focused on applying his team’s ideas to help businesses and consumers find their own hidden treasures. He was unsuccessful in raising even $2 million from American venture capitalists, but, once again, he persevered. Eventually, he raised $5 million through Goldman Sachs, and later, Masayoshi Son of Japan’s SoftBank invested $20 million.

Ma is passionate about building the Alibaba ecosystem in order to help people, a philosophy that he is trying to embed into the DNA of the company. At the company’s founding, he issued generous stock option packages to early employees because he wanted to enrich their lives. The day of the IPO, he insisted Alibaba’s six values–Customer First, Teamwork, Embrace Change, Integrity, Passion, Commitment–be placed on the pillars of the New York Stock Exchange.

Ma’s commitment to a cause larger than himself has propelled him forward.

My vision is to build an e-commerce ecosystem that allows consumers and businesses to do all aspects of business online. I want to create one million jobs, change China’s social and economic environment, and make it the largest Internet market in the world.

American tech leaders, such as Larry Page of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, have emphasized technology and product above everything. Not Ma. “I’m not a tech guy,” he said. “I’m looking at technology with the eyes of my customers—normal people’s eyes.”

With his light-hearted nature, Ma participates in annual talent shows where he sings pop songs. He also practices Tai Chi and martial arts, which he calls “the most down-to-earth way of explaining Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. These practices cherish brotherhood, morality, courage, emotion, and conscience.”

Ma worries that China lost an entire generation when Mao Zedong phased out Confucianism and other forms of spirituality. His bold vision is to restore that sense of values and purpose to the next generation. “It’s not policies we need, but genuine people,” he said. Ma is highly ethical in his business practices. He noted, “I would rather shut down my company than pay a bribe.”

For all his confidence, Ma is not without worries. He believes his biggest challenges are to create genuine value for his customers, to work cooperatively with the government, and to build his team of global leaders. He would like to use his wealth to found a university for entrepreneurs that can produce the next generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. “Our challenge,” Ma said, “is to help more people to make money in a sustainable manner. That is not only good for them but also good for society.”

“Ma embodies the global intelligence, or GQ, that is needed for today’s global leaders.” –Bill George

Developing Global Intelligence (GQ)

Ma embodies the global intelligence, or GQ, that is needed for today’s global leaders. Succeeding in the new global context will require companies to cultivate a cadre of executives—as many as 500 per company—who have the capabilities of global leaders. Developing these new leaders requires unique leadership experiences, ideally in emerging markets, combined with leadership development programs that differ materially from today’s corporate training programs. Traditionally, the latter have focused on managerial skills and building one’s functional knowledge. Yet the shortcomings of leaders—and their subsequent failures—usually result from the lack of leadership capabilities that we call global intelligence, or GQ.

GQ consists of seven elements, all of which are essential for global leaders:

  • Adaptability
  • Awareness
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Alignment
  • Collaboration
  • Integration

Several of these characteristics—such as awareness—seem very similar to parts of the process we’ve examined for discovering your True North. That’s by design. Global interactions heighten the stress that leaders face. The more global the context, the more demanding leadership becomes. When leaders are placed in emerging market situations, the complexity increases exponentially because the differences in language, culture, customer preferences, negotiating tactics, business practices, laws, and ethical standards are so great. The same applies to the activities of daily living in these countries. That’s why many otherwise solid leaders struggle with global assignments and working in emerging markets.

Let’s examine each of these characteristics of global leaders.


Being a global leader requires the ability to understand today’s volatile world and foresee changes coming in the years ahead. Global leaders must be able to adapt quickly to the rapidly changing global context by shifting resources to opportunity areas and developing contingency plans to cope with adverse geopolitical situations.

This is particularly true in emerging markets, where frequent changes in government, currency movements, financial crises, ethnic conflicts, wars, and terrorism may literally change the business climate overnight. In recent years, we have seen this happen in Greece, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia, and India, to mention just a few. Global leaders must be prepared to alter their tactics quickly to adjust to changes.


Leaders need to understand the world around them, as well as themselves—their strengths, vulnerabilities, and biases—to perceive how they will react to the significant cultural differences they encounter. When people from developed countries live in emerging markets, they become much more aware of themselves and their insecurities as they begin to understand the complexities of other languages, being in the minority, and differences in cultures and norms.

“One of the greatest challenges global leaders face is incorporating local and global issues into an integrated corporate strategy.” –Bill George


Global leaders must have deep curiosity about the cultures they encounter. This includes a personal passion for diverse experiences and an insatiable desire to learn from other cultures. They also must be humble to recognize that different cultural norms and ways of doing things guiding other cultures may often be superior to their own. When you visit an emerging market, such as China or India, do you stay in a deluxe hotel and eat in Western restaurants, or do you get out into the country, meet the people, go to local markets and shops, and visit people’s homes to see how they live? That marks the difference between domestic leaders traveling overseas and global leaders who are open to experiencing all the world has to offer.


Empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. This requires humility and the capability to engage people from different cultures personally, rather than standing back and judging them. Empathy builds rapport and bonding and creates lasting relationships. Only with empathy are leaders able to draw the highest level of engagement from colleagues from different cultures and empower them to achieve exceptional performance.


The challenge for global leaders is to align all employees around the company’s mission and its values, a commitment that transcends national and cultural differences. Achieving alignment is far more difficult in a global context because the business practices and ethics in emerging markets often differ so dramatically from those of developed countries. Thus, global leaders are asking local employees to put the company’s mission and values ahead of the business practices and values in countries where they have grown up and worked. It is no longer sufficient just to comply with the laws and ethics without regard for negative consequences their business practices may have on the countries in which they operate. However, this does not mean giving up their culture and the norms by which they live, because norms can vary widely from country to country.


In a global context, collaboration is the ability to create horizontal networks that cut across geographic lines, bring people together around common goals, and create a modus operandi that transcends geographic norms. In authentic global collaborations, participants put company and project goals first and work together in partnerships to achieve them. The most successful geographic collaborations are led by global leaders who know the strengths and weaknesses of each regional group and who make assignments within the team to take advantage of their relative strengths.


One of the greatest challenges global leaders face is incorporating local and global issues into an integrated corporate strategy. Such a strategy enables them to optimize their position in a wide array of local markets efficiently to create sustainable competitive advantage. Doing so requires deep understanding of local markets and the global vision to see how their companies can serve their customers’ needs in a superior manner by leveraging their corporate strengths. That’s the only way they can outcompete local companies, which often have a cost advantage because they operate in the region.

As Unilever’s COO Harish Manwani explained, “We have a globally distributed organizational model that balances local relevance with global leverage.”

We don’t believe in “Think local; act global.” Instead, we believe in “Act local; think global.” The company starts by acting locally, creating relevance through an understanding of consumer needs and desires and their local cultures. Then we leverage Unilever’s vast global resources to deliver superior products to meet those needs. This is how we gain competitive advantage over local producers. We are committed to bringing our expertise to local markets.

Today’s authentic global leaders recognize that in the future, businesses can only thrive by serving all the people of the world equitably while also contributing to their societies.

This article was originally published 10/22/15 on Knowledge@Wharton.


CNBC: Bill George on Nightly Business Report

Nightly Business Report: Bill George discusses United Airlines’ decision to name is general counsel Brett Hart as acting CEO as current CEO Oscar Munoz recovers from a heart attack. Does this temporary replacement settle questions about the company’s future?


Huffington Post: The Surprising Difference Between Careerism and Leadership

Ask yourself whether you are leading with purpose or just trying to get ahead.iStock_000053008192_Medium

Do you actually believe in something larger than your compensation, your career trajectory or your next success?

I often tell young leaders, if their work has no meaning or satisfaction, they are better off quitting and sitting on the beach until they decide what they want to do.

Many people’s work is completely disconnected from their values and their purpose. This lack of purpose isn’t something to deal with by working with a nonprofit in your spare time. If you don’t take action to address this disconnect, it can become like an insidious cancer that eats at your soul. Long-run, a lack of purpose can lead to burnout, poor decision-making and even moral derailment.

Understanding Your Purpose

Your purpose is the genuine deeper meaning in your work. It reflects whyyou do what you do.

Understanding your purpose is essential to becoming a better leader. People who lead with a sense of purpose that is aligned with their company’s purpose make better long-term decisions and are more authentic.

But this is not as easy as it sounds. Discerning your purpose takes a combination of introspection and real-world experiences before you can determine where you want to devote your energies.

The first step to knowing your purpose is to understand your life story. We all face times of crisis, pain or rejection in our lives. Reflecting on the life you’ve lived helps you to discover your True North – the beliefs, values and principles most important to you.

Before you take on a leadership role, ask yourself: “What motivates me to lead this organization?” If the honest answers are simply power, prestige and money, you are at risk of being trapped by external gratification as your source of fulfillment.

This never works. Why? Simply, you can never have enough money, fame or recognition. When you give someone else the power to decide if you’re successful (whether it’s the Forbes 400 list or an invitation to Davos), you lose. If you allow some external force to define your success, you have essentially abdicated your soul.

There is a deep voice inside you that yearns to bring your unique gifts to this world. If you neglect that voice, you create deep misalignments that eventually will surface.

Purpose at Work

Ken Frazier traveled a unique road en route to becoming CEO of Merck, the leading pharmaceutical research company. Born before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, Frazier’s grandfather was a slave in South Carolina. He sent his son, Frazier’s father, to live in Philadelphia. With no formal education, Frazier’s father became a janitor, yet taught himself to read, reading two newspapers a day. In spite of his limited opportunities, he had a profound influence on Frazier’s life.

After his mother died when he was 12, Frazier and his sisters had to fend for themselves after school, avoiding the gangs that dominated the streets outside his house. “I learned very early from my father that one has to be one’s own person and not go along with the crowd,” Frazier says. His father asked him, “Kenny, how are you going to carry on your grandfather’s narrative of being free and your own person? You better do what you know is right, and not be fixated on what other people think of you.”

While studying at on Penn State scholarship, Frazier decided he wanted “to become a great lawyer like Thurgood Marshall, affecting social change.” At Harvard Law School, he was acutely aware he wasn’t from the same social class as his classmates. He wryly notes, “Lloyd Blankfein [CEO of Goldman Sachs] and I were the only students who ‘were not of the manor born.'”

Shortly after he joined Merck, Frazier took on the extremely difficult task of defending Merck from over 40,000 lawsuits filed after the pain drug Vioxx was withdrawn from the market due to alleged cardiovascular problems. Frazier did so successfully, catapulting him into the CEO’s chair where he faced a greater challenge: short-term shareholders pressured him to cut back Merck’s research as several of its competitors were doing. Frazier stayed the course, committing to spend a minimum of $8 billion per year on research in order to pursue cures for devastating diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Reflecting on his sense of purpose, Frazier explains, “Merck’s purpose is aligned with my personal sense of who I want to be and what I hope to contribute to the world. At Merck, you have the opportunity to make tangible contributions to humanity. There’s a yearning in all of us to leave something meaningful behind, because we know we have a short time on earth. Merck gives me the chance to leave something to people 20, 50 or even 100 years from now because we did the right things today.”

Asked what his father would say about his remarkable success, Frazier says modestly, “He’d say, ‘The boy did what he was supposed to do.'”

Turning Purpose Into Action

Your leadership purpose is not meaningful until it is applied to solving problems you encounter in the real world. When you align your personal purpose with an organization’s mission, you unlock the full potential of people in the organization.

That’s what I tried to do at Medtronic where we connected employees’ True North with the company mission of “restoring health, alleviating pain and extending life.” My successors, especially current CEO Omar Ishrak, have pursued this mission with vigor, contributing to the 100 times increase in the company’s market value over the past 26 years. More importantly, the number of people each year restored to full health has grown from 300,000 to 15 million.

As long as you focus on your True North, understand your purpose and use it to make a difference in the world, you can leave a legacy that inspires those who follow.

This article was originally posted 10/21/15 on Huffington Post.


More Than Sound: The Contemplative Leader: A Conversation with Bill George

Authentic leaders have developed a keen inner focus. They know what’s going on inside of businessman-with-binoculars-1024x749themselves. They’re in touch with the relationship between their emotions and their actions. Most importantly, they possess a meta awareness – an awareness of awareness itself.

Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School and author of Discover Your True North, has some interesting methodologies for helping leaders master their self-awareness. Here’s what he had to say about a practical technique to develop self-awareness in his recent conversation with Daniel Goleman.


The Contemplative Leader

When I introduce the concept of inner focus, some people view it as being egotistical. I think it’s just the opposite. Most business leaders I know are incredibly focused, but they’re focused on their business goals. Inside they’re a mess. Why? Because they don’t take time to get clarity about what it is they’re trying to do and who they are. You can’t be a good leader until you have a real depth of awareness of who you are and what you’re about. Otherwise you’re just chasing your tail, so to speak.

All of us – not just leaders – are so outwardly oriented. We don’t truly know ourselves because we don’t spend any time on trying to know ourselves. We don’t take the time to examine why we react when X situation occurs. We just react according to our habits. Business as usual.

People often ask me, how do I gain self-awareness? For me, maintaining an introspective or contemplative practice has been essential to my success. I’ve been a meditator since 1975. I try to sit for at least a few minutes a day, twice a day.

Before that, I was a wreck. I was just chasing everything – 25, 50 objectives all at once. I had no sense of clarity. And when I began to meditate, I gained a sense of what’s really important. I learned to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I come out of it with a sense of clarity. Here are the three or four things that I really need to go focus on.

But I also got a much deeper sense of what I’m about and who I am, as well as a sense of wellbeing and tranquility. Without that sense of wellbeing you can’t really be an effective, focused leader. You can’t feel good about yourself if you continue to let ghosts from the past chase you.

Now, you’re contemplative practice doesn’t have to be meditation. It could be prayer. It could be talking with a loved one in great depth. It could be going for a jog to clear your head. It could be taking a long walk. I happen to like meditation, but I’m not saying that’s the only way.

Gain more insights on authentic leadership from Bill George in Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide and The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership.


This article was originally post 10/21/ 2015 on