Genghis Kahn and Principles of Leadership

Genghis Kahn and Principles of Leadership

Bill Casey and Wendi Peck

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We stand corrected. That was after having carelessly made the assertion that no foreign power had successfully occupied Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Now, “standing corrected” is the problem of being a dilettante in front of a smart guy like Prof. Peter Dutton at the U.S. Naval War College. “Nope,” he said. “Genghis Kahn did it, too.” Then he told us to read Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, so we did. And what a pleasure!

Yeah, Genghis Kahn was ruthless. He was ruthless like Julius Caesar, Napoleon and, of course, Alexander the Great; though he may have been more adept at parlaying his bloodthirsty reputation into bloodless victories when he could. In any event, Genghis Kahn was their peer as a leader and a visionary – and easily as worthy of study.

There are plenty of things to learn from him. Here are a few:

  • Be a borg. If you’ve ever seen a takeover in which the acquiring management team acted like they had nothing to learn from the acquiree – then you’ve seen what Genghis Kahn would never do. When he conquered a people, he still sought to learn from them. He studied – and adopted – their best war fighting practices, their technology, their culture. Like the Borg of Star Trek, Mongolians under Genghis Kahn became practically unbeatable by absorbing the best of every civilization they encountered, subjugating more people and more land in 25 years than the Roman army did in 400 years.
  • Reward results. Genghis Kahn swept away centuries of feudalism and aristocratic hierarchy. It’s amazing how he rose above his own culture in which lineage equaled privilege, and created an empire in which even the lowest citizen could become wealthy and powerful, based on his or her (yes, women, too) individual achievement and loyalty. His kingdom was a meritocracy that wasted no talent.
  • Hold all to a high standard. At a time when “rule of law” was largely unknown – rulers were the law – Genghis Kahn held all subjects to the same standards. Even the most powerful rulers under him were held to the same standards as the ordinary citizen.

The list goes on. Seth Godin recently commented that, when you don’t have a mentor handy to learn from, pick a hero. We don’t know if Genghis Kahn qualifies as a hero, but he certainly goes on the someone-to-learn-from list. Do you know of someone else, maybe unexpected, who goes on that list?

Published: December 17, 2015

1 Comment

  1. Pamela Taylor

    I’m definately going with the “unexpected” angle here, when I submit for your consideration: Benedict Arnold. I’m not a millitary historian, but by all accounts, Arnold had a pretty darn good track record (at least until that pesky treason issue). He joined the army as a lad, and worked his way up.

    During his career, Arnold was a poster child for Internal Locus of Control. He invested his own money in the war effort. He agreed to serve beneath others who were previously his subordinates due to charges of malfeasance (OF WHICH HE WAS EXHONERATED). He focused on the factors that were within his control.

    And how was he repaid? He was a loser in the game of polical roulette, and subsequently (many believe unjustly) he was passed over for promotion. Many, many times. Also, the government audited his accounts and decided that he owed them money. After he had pulled out his own wallet to support the cause.

    Everyone knows how this story ends, but I think Arnold’s legacy as the very definition of betrayal is irrelevant. I believe that leaders should view his story as a cautionary tale about what can happen if we take credit for or even thwart the success of our subordinates for our own gain.


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