When Jack Ma became an ‘adaptive leader’ for the want of a Chinese beer

The rise of the Chinese tycoon speaks volumes about how the leadership approach matters

If you are asked whose favourite tipple is beer, which nation’s name will come up on your mental radar screen? Naturally, it will be Germany for most people. After all, Germans have a beer fest every year – the Munchen (Munich) festival. A former East German who this writer met in Chennai in 2006 – long after the two Germanys were amalgamated – had screwed up his face at the suggestion of the writer attending the annual bash. He said with his best teutonic high browed mien, “Why do you want to attend it? The overwhelming stench of the place during those days is piss.”

But, guess what? The three countries which are top of the pops for drinking beer are the USA, China and Brazil. So, it was in the US one evening, Jack Ma, sitting in his dreary hotel room, was searching for a beer to drink on the internet. He found that all the brands he had electronically accessed were either American or European. There was not a single Chinese beer available on the web-based platform he was using. Thus was born the idea of developing a web-based retailer for China – and then the rest of the world. But, Alibaba was still some years away.

Who is Jack Ma? Everyone in the world knows his name today. He was the toast of the town in Davos at the annual jamboree in 2017 after US president Donald Trump could not have enough of him: all for Ma’s promise that he would create jobs in America. This is the same man who was turned down by Harvard Business School 10 times. He had to appear for college admission test in China thrice before he could enter its portals.

The bio of Ma that this writer found most interesting on the internet was of Inc.com. The website recorded that even in starting up he failed twice before the 53-year-old called 17 of his friends to a hotel room and corralled them into coughing up the seed money for Alibaba. It is a legend how this is now a dream come true for the medium- and small-scale businesses of China or, even for that matter, the globe. Those friends who believed their fellow Chinaman are multi-millionaires now.

So, what is Ma’s managing style. He makes his employees do hand-stand so that they can feel their energies flowing at high level! He also performs in drags as a pop queen for his 20,000-plus employees. What is that leadership style? My instructor at the premier East West Centre, Hawai’i, would call it “adaptive leadership”, a concept created by Professor Ron Hiefitz of ironically, the same Cambridge, Massachussets-based, Harvard.

This is not prescribed by the Peter Drucker types, who wrote management tomes in the 1980s when we were growing up. But, I would say it is more in the nature of then famous International Marketing Group head honcho Mark McCormack. He signed on Jack Nicklaus, the golfing phenomenon before Tiger Woods, in a moment of inspired performance that convinced Jack he could get a humungous amount of money not just playing golf, but lending his name to various products and services, even endorsing building new golf courses.

So, is leadership a factor of inspired moments? Or, is it more diabolical than that? Well, it actually is. The book that McCormack wrote was called What They don’t Teach you at Harvard Business School. In that he had recorded another instance of intellectual epitome, the advetrtising guru David Ogilvy.

Ogilvy got the contract for selling Rolls-Royce. But don’t the millionaires and billionaires know what a Rolls is? Of course, they are enamoured of the “standing fairy” on the bonnet of the car. They do. So what’s new that Ogilvy could do? He took a ride on a Rolls. And bingo! The line that became equally famous as the Rolls was the tag, “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”.

Now what did that actually say about the car? Let’s break it down to the basics. It said (a) for tired millionaires, the ride is the smoothest even as his chauffeur drove him home after a hard day’s work; (b) how was that achieved: broadly because of highest quality engineering; and, (c) for those who are into mechanics of a moving automobile, the suspension of the car does its work at full capacity, thus giving the rider a smooth as silk drive.

When one begins a journey into any area of activity – thought and action should match. One cannot eternally chase a rainbow for a pot of gold. One has to build, say a software bit by bit, and a product by a genius that seeks to excel beyond one’s capacity. Competition is key; but the toughest challenge is the one’s with oneself. Have a beer!

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