The “extra” factor in business leaders … how ordinary people become extra-ordinary

March 3, 2019

Jack Ma began studying English at a young age, spending time talking to English-speaking visitors at the Hangzhou international hotel near his home. He would then ride 70 miles on his bicycle to give tourists tours of the area to practice his English. Foreigners nicknamed him “Jack” because they found his Chinese name too difficult to pronounce his Chinese name.

In 1988 he became an English teacher earning just $12 a month, and describing it as “the best life I had”.

However he soon had ambitions to do more. He applied for 30 different jobs and got rejected by all. He wanted to be a policeman but was told he was too small. He tried his luck at KFC, when the first franchise came to China. Famously he recalled at the World Economic Forum “Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy who wasn’t.” He applied to Harvard Business School, but was rejected 10 times.

However he persevered, seeing every step as a learning experience. In 1994, Ma heard about the Internet. One day, when searching online for the different beers of the world, he was surprised to find none from China. The world’s most popular brand, Snow beer, is of course Chinese. So he and a friend launched a simple Chinese language website called China Pages. Within hours investors were on the phone, and within three years he was generating over 5,000,000 Chinese Yuan.

Over the next two decades he built Alibaba into a $500 billion organisation. In 2017, to celebrate the internet giant’s 18th birthday, Ma appeared on stage dressed like Michael Jackson, turning the event into a ‘Thriller’ performance. His passion for his company, and for his audience of employees, shone through.

Yet a year later, at a mere 54 years old, and personally worth $40 billion, he decided to retire saying “teachers always want their students to exceed them, so the responsible thing to do for me and the company to do is to let younger, more talented people take over in leadership roles so that they inherit our mission ‘to make it easy to do business anywhere’.”

“Having been trained as a teacher, I feel extremely proud of what I have achieved,” he wrote to his colleagues and shareholders” before adding “I still have lots of dreams to pursue. I want to return to education, which excites me with so much blessing because this is what I love to do. This is something I want to devote most of my time to when I retire.”

He spoke passionately about the challenges for the future of education at the 2018 World Economic Forum saying: “A teacher should learn all the time; a teacher should share all the time. Education is a big challenge now – if we do not change the way we teach 30 years later we will be in trouble. We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance.”

Extra + Ordinary 

We use the phrase “extraordinary” as a badge of awe, of amazement, of unbelievable achievement. But most extraordinary human achievements come from people who started out exactly like you and me, very ordinary. Except somewhere on their journey, they gained “extra”, an “X” factor.

In researching for my new book “Extra+Ordinary: How to lead the future of business” I have spent many hours exploring what it takes for today’s business leaders to thrive in today’s dynamic markets, to find the new opportunities for innovation and growth, to step up to the challenge of creating a better future.

Psychologist Dr David Sack, based in Pennsylvania USA, says “Being extraordinary isn’t reserved for the rich, the famous, the powerful, or the privileged. Extraordinary people exist within even the most seemingly ordinary lives. They are the ones with the knack for living genuinely and who inspire us to attempt the same.”

We can all name extraordinary people who have touched us—a teacher who made us feel seen, a relative who helped us believe in our dreams, a friend who created a circle of acceptance wide enough for all. We also read about them in history, and the present day. Da Vinci’s polymath-inspired breakthroughs, Musk’s daring visions of the future.

Sack argues that people who we see as extraordinary can’t be defined by a single profile, but their lives are likely to include some vital ingredients:

1. Extra+Ordinary leaders focus on what matters

Evolution has set us up to feel that we must accumulate more—more money, more things, more success. But evolution never promised us those things would make us happy. And, indeed, studies show they don’t. Even money goes only so far. While we certainly feel less anxiety with economic stability, abundance can backfire, affecting our ability to appreciate everyday pleasures.

The XO person knows it’s the intrinsic qualities that bring true satisfaction—those that satisfy our needs for emotional intimacy and personal growth. Focusing on extrinsic goals, by contrast—things such as physical attractiveness, wealth and fame—not only doesn’t satisfy us, it can damage our well-being by setting us up to feel that what we have is never enough. XO don’t need to join the crowd. Instead, they are content to keep their focus on “being” rather than “having.”

2. Extra+Ordinary leaders have an ability to connect

A famous research project called the Grant Study has followed every aspect of the lives of 268 men from the 1930s to this day. A few years ago, the longtime director of the study, George Vaillant, was asked what he had learned from the mountains of data. His response? “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Extraordinary people understand this; that’s why they make others a priority. They are the ones who remember our names, ask us questions and care about the answers, and leave us feeling heard and valued. Extraordinary people also connect with themselves, paying attention to their feelings and respecting their needs, just as they do for those around them.

3. Extra+Ordinary leaders are willing to be imperfect

It’s not that extraordinary people never fail; but they’re the ones who put themselves out there despite their failures. Brené Brown, PhD, writes about this in her book Daring Greatly:

“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”

Those who are willing to reach for the extraordinary understand that criticism and rejection are the price we sometimes pay for trying, that we all have fear, and that defeat doesn’t equal unworthiness. This willingness to be vulnerable gives them the freedom to pursue their dreams and tap into their creative powers. By extension, this mindset creates a safe place for those in their orbit, so that they can feel inspired to give it their best shot, too.

4. Extra+Ordinary leaders are positive and optimistic

We spend our lives aiming for happiness, but how many of us really let it in when it arrives? Instead, we temper our joy, feeling we somehow don’t deserve it, or that it won’t last, or that we are somehow jinxing ourselves by acknowledging it. If you’ve ever felt your heart swell with joy as you look at a loved one only to instantly imagine tragedy befalling them, or received a promotion only to worry that your company’s faith has been misplaced, you know what I mean.

The antidote for this reaction is gratitude, as the extraordinary people among us know. They aren’t fooling themselves; they know that joy ebbs and flows, but they welcome what they get, allow themselves to feel worthy of their share, and seek it in the most ordinary moments—where it is most often found.  They are positive, optimistic, looking forwards, and seeing the opportunities, the potential, the progress that they can nurture and seize.

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