After we’ve been through a presidential race during which each major party candidate employed battlefield-type management, many of us grew weary? Now, we have a president who, no matter which side you’re on, we know is going to manage in domineering ways. Imagine, for a moment, what it would feel like to be part of a big group which universally trusted its leader and authorized people throughout the group to use their best judgment, produce quick and positive results, and act in ways that put those least fortunate at the top of the priority list. This simple formula is at the root of success of a 10 million member organization, based in Taiwan, called Tzu Chi.

Stan Shih, cofounder of Acer, the computer company, believes that “Cheng Yen is… one of the world’s best CEOs.” Lacking degrees and training, Buddhist Nun Dharma Master Cheng Yen inspired 30 housewives in 1966 with her desire to help the poor. She asked the housewives to save two cents from their grocery money each day to help the unfortunate in their communities. From this humble beginning, 10 million volunteers now willingly serve in over 50 countries. Tzu Chi (which means compassionate relief in Chinese), is a faith-based organization headquartered in Hualien, a Taiwanese city, that provides humanitarian relief.

Some past Tzu Chi projects include assisting after the World Trade Center attacks, hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and a lost Malaysia Airlines flight heading from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Malaysia Airlines flight lost contact with the control center on March 8, 2014, carrying 239 people. A 22-month search that involved 26 countries failed to locate the plane. It simply vanished, leaving grieving, angry families with no answers. The loss of the plane took away parents, siblings, and grandparents forever. In the midst of this tragedy, the extremely successful service-style management of the Tzu Chi organization met the needs of the victims’ family members.

Problems in Malaysia and Beijing arose when frustrated families of those who were lost on the flight protested and Malaysian Airlines reached out for help to Tzu Chi volunteers (known as the “blue angels”). The volunteers quickly set up communication, aid and relief centers, and brought 700 unpaid volunteers to Malaysia and China overnight. Twenty-four-hour call centers sprang up, accommodations for arriving family members of victims were secured; and volunteers stationed themselves at hotel lobbies, airports and anywhere needed to give assistance.

The volunteers in blue and white clothes are as unique as their unconventional management style. Harvard senior professor Herman Leonard, an authority on mission-driven organizations, describes their techniques and methods as innovative because they allow middle and lower managers to make big decisions. Volunteers prepare for this role by discussing future humanitarian situations and core values, including love, gratitude, and respect, with Master Cheng Yen. How are these values incorporated? One way is shown in the characteristic bow given by volunteers before they leave a meeting or humanitarian interaction with the words, “Thank you for giving me the honor of serving you today.”

Though the author is not affiliated with Tzu Chi, this model developed by a housewife 50 years ago, is a brilliant and simple example of service-style management. Leonard finds Tzu Chi’s mission statement, or promise, is key to its fluidity and effectiveness: “We reduce suffering wherever it may exist.” This declaration guides volunteers to respond and make decisions based on their mission, values, and modeling. Promises instead of plans inspire the success of Tzu Chi.
Humanitarian organizations, presidential candidates, and administrations need to update and disrupt old style, authoritarian management to meet the needs of people. Tzu Chi’s adaptability is the right approach for a world full of people who want both personal fulfillment and a cause they can believe in.

By Sherrie Goaslind for Progress through Business