Two Legends: Separated by Time and Space, But United in Their World View

new wef davis snowFor some reason, the World Economic Forum likes to present some of the biggest names in government and business in a relatively intimate setting. Rather than feature them in the plenary hall that accommodates 1,500 people – a room these world figures could easily fill – they schedule a session in a room called Agenda 2. It accommodates just 90 people in three rows around two chairs in the center.

Yesterday I was there as the New York Times’ Tom Friedman interviewed the legendary Israeli leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres. Today, CBS anchor Charlie Rose interviewed Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Both men impressed me with their humanity. One is a politician and the other is the leader of the e-commerce company that did the biggest IPO in history. But both are also philosophers of the first order who, from their rare perch, look beyond their immediate role to see the larger themes that shape the meaning of a life well lived.

B78qbq6CcAEkm10Shimon Peres, who is 91, was asked what was his key to such longevity. He explained that throughout your life you have many dreams and hopefully many accomplishments. He said, “If your dreams still outnumber your accomplishments, you are still young.” When you run out of dreams, you’re old. Peres, who twice served Israel as prime minister and once as president, apparently still has a few big dreams left – and you can bet they are not about him and his next accomplishment.

IMG_0340Jack Ma, who is 41 years younger at 50, charmed the audience with his perspective. Now the richest person in China with a net worth between $20-30 billion, he told us that he applied to KFC to work in the kitchen when it first opened in China years ago and of the 30 people interviewed that day, he was the only one rejected. He applied to Harvard 10 times and was rejected every time. (“I told them recently that some day I will go there and teach.”). He believes that how you bounce back from rejection is what matters. Which is why Forrest Gump is one of his heroes.

Ma said the IPO, which valued Alibaba at $230 billion, “wasn’t just money. It was a trust from the world to do something important.”

Rose asked him what it meant to be one of the richest people in the world. He said, “When you make a million, that is your money. When you make $20 million – you start to worry about your investments and interest rates and all that. When you have a billion – that is not your money. That is a trust, and the question is: What are you going to do with that to make the world better?”

Self-interest is the greatest obstacle to progress in the world today. It’s great to know that there are leaders capable of more.

Rob Flaherty is Chairman of Ketchum, the global communications consultancy with 130 offices and affiliates worldwide. He is on the board of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations and the advisory board of Room to Read, which focuses on literacy and girls education in developing nations. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.