Leadership Lessons From Genghis Khan

November 9, 2010 · 4 comments

What We Can Learn From a Man Who Conquered The World

NOTE: This essay was first published on a now non-existent blog I had about two years ago. I am currently recording this book (see below)  for personal use in mp3 format.

In a mere quarter century, the Mongol army conquered more land and people than the Romans did in four centuries. The land area alone was greater than all North America. The man responsible for this was Genghis Khan, named Temüjin after a battle in which a Tatar chief of that name was killed by his father.

Temüjin rose from abject poverty, at one time even a slave, on the steppes of Mongolia, to become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. He lived by a set of exact and stringent rules he set for himself, and expected his people to follow the same code.

Although the Mongols have been perceived as barbarous demons from hell by the conquered, especially what was known of him in Europe, by European standards they were certainly no worse and in many ways not as cruel as Europeans. One example is torture. Long before the 13th century Europeans, particularly Christianity under the papacy rule had perfected torture to the point of being an art. Temüjin did not allow torture or mutilation; conversely, death was a matter of course, usually dispensed quickly.

Temüjin was a charismatic man, one who inspired men to follow him, yet he did not hesitate to use any means available to maintain order, often exacting death to enemies. So, what were the traits and principles he laid down for himself and his people?

Loyalty to Friends, No Mercy to Enemies.

Temüjin demanded loyalty and in turn was loyal to his friends. The rules of conduct he created were as simple as the Ten Commandments, and as harsh and conceptually Mafia like in practice. In fact his methods were similar to the Mafia in that one was either a friend or an enemy, with him or against him.
During the campaigns across Asia, the Mongols typically used a Godfather like ploy before attacking and taking a city. They made “an offer you can’t refuse” in an effort to avoid the inevitable battles necessary to conquer the city.

Appoint The Most Loyal Followers to Critical Positions.

At age 12, Temüjin’s father was poisoned and as a result he died. Metaphorically, our food may not be purposely poisoned, but this illustrates the reasoning for absolute loyalty and an occasional check of who prepares the food. In the armies of the Mongolians, he instituted a system of checks and balances, to insure loyalty, and demonstrated to those who were disloyal a painful death.

Reward Based on Merit and Achievement, Never Title or Position.

Under the rule of Genghis Khan the lowliest camel boy could become a general and ride in front of an army of ten thousand. Temüjin made it a practice to appoint men based on proven ability and loyalty. He had a particular disdain for royalty, aristocracy and heads of state, men or women with inherited position. Upon conquering a city or territory, the ruling class was usually executed to prevent future problems. He viewed kings and aristocratic authority with disdain and mistrust, a holdover from his boyhood.

Advisers to “Stay beside him morning and evening to advise him.”

Temüjin demanded that his advisers advise him. Apparent as it may seem, no one works in a vacuum. While trying to teach his sons the necessary qualities for leadership, he warned them “never to think of themselves as the strongest or smartest” and “If you can’t swallow your pride you can’t lead.” The final decisions were made by him, but the opinions came from many heads.

Complete And Total Religious Freedom For Everyone.

Now there is a concept. As long as religion did not interfere with the laws of the Mongol empire, Temüjin deemed it better to leave these institutions intact. Europeans were incredulous to find that in China under Mongol rule, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and many other religious sects lived peacefully side by side. Religious freedom prevents turmoil, for what could create more incitement to rebel than religious intolerance?

As a side note, in the US we tend to believe that we have always enjoyed religious freedom, but such is not the case. Before, during and after the Revolutionary war, each colony subscribed to a particular Christian faith, forcing residents, at times under penalty of death to do the same. There were exceptions in some cases, but you would not want to be Jewish in Virginia during this period. Thomas Jefferson was most responsible for the perceived freedom we enjoy now.

Exploit Internal Turmoil With Enemies Using Propaganda.

After the attack of 9/11, citizens of the US were told to go about their business as usual, else the terrorists have won. Immediately the US government, under the Bush administration, set up all manner of impediments to “business as usual.” Of course we need better security; we should have had that to begin with. Airline travel is not merely uncomfortable, it is a nightmare. The recent incident of a plane sitting on the tarmac with hundreds of passengers for more than 10 hours should serve as an example. And in so many other ways has our fear been exploited since that time. Temüjin knew how to use FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) centuries ago. It still works.

Create External Confusion, Foment Anxiety and Fear Among Enemies.

The Mongols were highly skilled tacticians in warfare. They may have invented the blitzkrieg method, attacking with force and coming from all directions at once. They would send soldiers into enemy cities, often disguised, to spread rumors about the ferocity of the Mongols. To make it known that a barbarous horde was about to descend on them, cities would be terrified before the Mongols ever got there. These concepts too, work still to strike fear in the heart of the enemy. Or, in some cases to control the masses – as mentioned, post 9/11.

Wage War to Preserve Life.

Although in some ways an oxymoron, consider that war was (is) a historical inevitability. Unlike other generals and rulers in history, Temüjin never sacrificed a single soldier if possible.
Temüjin never asked for “the supreme sacrifice.” His strategy was to preserve the lives of his soldiers and the Mongol life. It was taboo even to think or talk about death, or talk about those who had been killed. The Mongols believed that thinking about a thing could make it happen. Had these isolated – in the respect they were after all in Mongolia -  soldiers discovered what we consider a modern concept?  Learned psychologists and religious leaders today refer to this as positive thinking.

There is no Honor in Fighting; There is Honor in Winning.

The Mongols never waged war for glory. They erected no statues, no memorials, and hardly kept a history of great rulers, certainly not outside the Mongolian world. They fought to conquer and rule, because to rule meant to enjoy the material benefits of the conquered. To that end, they used any and every trick or deception they could think of to win. Winning was indeed, everything.

The Snake of Many Heads

In the latter part of his life, Genghis Khan was trying to explain to his four sons how to rule the vast Mongolian empire. He feared that each of the four would try to rule, divide Mongolia, and in essence, revert to the state of warring clans that existed before his tribal unification. He related the fable of the single-headed and the many-headed snake to them.

There existed two snakes, one with many heads and one tail, and one with many tails and one head. When winter came, the many-headed snake’s heads pulled in different directions, arguing and fighting over which hole would provide the best protection for them from the freezing cold of winter. The snake with one head and many tails immediately found a hole and survived the winter, but the many-headed snake froze to death for lack of decision.

The Mongols were a free people, in many ways reminiscent of the North American plains Indians. They never adjusted to “civilization”, always revering The Blue Sky. The nomadic life of the Mongolian was harsh and barbaric, and though they conquered most of the world in the 13th century, they remained to themselves.

Genghis Khan laid the foundation for this conquest. Can we learn from his leadership principles something of value? Yes, when applied in concept only, for these days we humans are not the barbaric butchers of our ancestors. Or are we?

Please note that the greater part of my research for this article was taken from “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” by Jack Weatherford. This is a wonderful study of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian people. A New York Times best seller, I highly suggest it for those interested in a newer study of Mongul history.
Visit Jack Weatherford on the web here: http://www.macalester.edu/anthropology/people/weatherford.html
Buy the book here: http://www.amazon.com/Genghis-Khan-Making-Modern-World/dp/0609610627

Also note: I have no personal gain or monetary interest in this book.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kissie November 10, 2010 at 5:20 am

I’m currently working on a new policy and procedures manual for work, I’m so tempted to add a lot of this to it. Knowing me the way I do, I will be able to interject an idea or two! ;-)
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Hal Brown November 10, 2010 at 6:39 am

This is the best history of the Mongols I’ve ever read. Obviously, there is much more than the simple review I wrote. And I have no doubt you could add a thing or three about leadership. After all, you are a self-starter.
Thanks Kissie.


Mari B November 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Thanks for repurposing this essay. I enjoyed reading your synopsis of Mr. Khan’s relevant personal ethics some of which is truly timeless.

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