“We understand that this [Ali Baba’s success] is not because we worked hard or we are smart, but because we are fortunate to live in this era.”

 

We don’t often see business leaders crown their success with such unequivocal humility.  Yet this is how Jack Ma framed his letter to employees (BloombergBusinessweek did the translation so I will let you read it on their site) on the eve of Ali Baba’s IPO, which could become the largest tech IPO ever.  And in the letter, there are lessons for leaders everywhere.

 

Repeatedly, the letter stresses that Ali Baba owes its success to others, to good fortune, and to a consistent focus on the mission of the company.  His message to employees: it is not about how good we are…it’s what we do that matters.   His lesson for leaders: humility can often be the most powerful way to show strength. 

 

The letter lacks the celebratory tone that often accompanies these types of messages.  It focuses on the challenges the IPO creates, both for the business and for its soon-to-be-wealthy employees.  It clearly articulates the companies mission, and that it prioritizes “customer first, employee second, shareholder third.”  His message to the Street:  don’t invest in us if you want short-termism.  His lesson for leaders:  the only way to lead with principles is to deeply embed them into your organization’s culture.

  

Finally, he admonishes his team to “handle your wealth properly.”   His message to stakeholders:  we are an organization that deeply understands our responsibility to society.  His lesson for leaders:  everything your organization and your employees do communicates a message; you should help ensure it is a positive one. 

 

It’s tough to draw too strong a set of conclusions on messaging from a quickly translated letter.  And some of these messages are easier to communicate when life is good than they would be after a bad quarter or two.  Those caveats aside, there are only a handful of leaders whose prose demonstrates authentic humility and instills credibility.  Jack Ma may be one more for leaders to watch as he navigates Ali Baba into a “challenging” future. 

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