Leadership

Leadership lessons from Genghis Khan

While we'll leave judgment about the larger historical implications of the Khan's rule to the historians, several things will strike you as relevant to IT leaders.

I recently finished an incredibly interesting historical series on Genghis Khan, the Mongol leader who took what was essentially a small nomadic tribe and created an empire the likes of which the world had never seen. Khan was an interesting character, with much of his life shrouded in mystery-the location of his tomb is still being sought today-and with different historical interpretations of his actions. Many historians today regard his influence as largely positive, connecting disparate peoples and cultures, and spreading ideas and technologies that accelerated human progress. That positive view would likely be shocking to many of his peers, as the number of people killed and raped by his armies numbered in excess of dozens of millions. While I'll leave judgment about the larger historical implications of the Khan's rule to the historians, several things struck me as relevant to IT leaders.

Staying nimble

Like many other nomadic tribes, the Mongols were adept horsemen. Rather than fielding large armies of foot soldiers, Mongol armies were highly mobile. Genghis Khan leveraged this mobility to the hilt, both strategically and tactically. His enemies simply could not keep up with the speed with which his armies moved through their territory, and on the battlefield they were infamous for staging false retreats and drawing larger forces into an ambush.

While the Khan perfected these techniques, this was nothing particularly new for nomadic horse armies. What Genghis Khan did that was interesting was adapting and incorporating conquered nations' best tactics. In China he adopted their siege works and garnered the ability to attack major cities, and as he entered Islamic lands he offered religious tolerance to tempt different factions to join his armies against a dogmatic ruler.

In IT, we often run the risk of becoming too deeply ingrained in one set of tactics or technologies. Speak with most IT leaders and you might hear that "We're a Microsoft shop," or "We're too fully invested in Oracle to consider anything else." While it's too expensive and too time consuming to pursue every new technology that comes down the pike, building flexibility into your infrastructure and employees has a massive potential upside.

Getting the right people

While Genghis Khan would ruthlessly murder dissenters, something to be avoided in most IT shops, many of his best generals and field commanders came from conquered nations. As his empire grew, he sought the opinions of conquered Chinese leaders who had perfected the bureaucracy required to efficiently run a large empire, even overruling his own people when these former enemies suggested plans that would benefit an expanding territory more than traditional Mongol tactics.

In IT, we frequently get stuck focusing on degrees, certifications, and direct experience with a particular technology. Oftentimes, this deep expertise can be purchased at commodity pricing from consultants, when what we need internally are really flexible problem solvers with a demonstrated ability to learn. While we're unlikely to be picking staff from conquered nations, we can look for experience outside traditional technical fields and recruiting channels.

Maturing as a leader

The Khan frequently consulted outside experts for his own personal development as a leader, especially later in his life. Even at the pinnacle of his success, he sought advice from trusted advisors on everything from spirituality to how to prevent his people from growing "soft" as his empire grew. Like most supposedly "natural" athletes whose innate ability is backed by tens of thousands of hours of practice and training, Genghis Khan honed his natural abilities through disciplined study.

In management circles it's too easy to dismiss leadership as something one is either born with or else one completely lacks. This is an abject cop-out; like any other skill from programming to golf, leadership can be learned and can only be perfected through diligent development, study, and application. For reasons I've never quite fathomed, many IT leaders don't hesitate to spend millions on all manner of consulting activities, but shy away from help developing their own leadership and management capabilities. If one of the world's greatest conquerors and ruthless leaders had no problem consulting outside advisors, neither should you.

While Genghis Khan isn't exactly a perfect role model, having spilled the blood of millions largely by hand, like any ruthless leader his strategies and tactics can provide inspiration outside the bloodshed. It's particularly compelling that the Khan came from a largely ignored people who were virtually unknown to most of the world they eventually conquered. IT in many organizations can be similarly underestimated but, with the right leadership and focus, can provide the tools and tactics to make a company more competitive.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

31 comments
Baidar
Baidar

It’s very interesting information. Thank you very much. But it must be said: unfortunately, in the official history there are many pro-Chinese and Persian falsifications about the "wild nomads", "incredible cruelty of nomadic mongol-tatar conquerors", and about "a war between the Tatars and Genghis Khan” etc. Of course, that was for some political and ideological reasons. Well, perhaps you know, that a famous Tatar historian-scientist D. Iskhakov wrote in 2000: “the real history of Tatars, of the people in every respect historical, is not written yet”. However, recently was published a book by Galy Yenikeyev (Galy Rashid uly Yenikey) about the unwritten (hidden) real history of Tatars. There are a lot of previously little-known historical facts, as well as 16 maps and illustrations in this book, and well-grounded rebuttal of the chinese-persian myths about "incredible cruelty of nomadic mongol-tatar conquerors", and about "a war between the Tatars and Genghis Khan” etc. On the cover of this book you can see genuine appearance of Genghis Khan. It is his lifetime portrait. Notes to the portrait from the book say: \"...In the ancient Tatar historical source «About the clan of Genghis-Khan» the author gives the words of the mother of Genghis-Khan: «My son Genghis looks like this: he has a golden bushy beard, he wears a white fur coat and goes on a white horse...» [34, p. 14]. As we can see, the portrait of an unknown medieval artist in many ways corresponds to the words of the mother of the Hero, which have come down to us in this ancient Tatar story. Therefore, this portrait, which corresponds to the information of the Tatar source and to data from other sources, we believe, the most reliably transmits the appearance of Genghis-Khan...\". This e-book you can easily find in the Internet, on Smashwords company website: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/175211 Therefore, primarily we should know the truth about the meaning of the names "Mongol" and "Tatar" (“Tartar") in the medieval Eurasia: the name "Mongol" until the 17th-18th centuries meant belonging to a political community, and was not the ethnic name. While “the name "Tatar" was “the name of the native ethnos (nation) of Genghis Khan ???” , “???Genghis Khan and his people did not speak the language, which we now call the "Mongolian”???" (Russian academic-orientalist V.P.Vasiliev, 19th century). This is also confirmed by many other little known facts. So in fact Genghis Khan was a Tatar and a great leader of the all Turkic peoples. But with time many of his descendants and tribesmen became spiritually disabled and forgot him and his invaluable doctrine and covenants... Tatars of Genghis Khan -medieval Tatars - were one of the Turkic nations, whose descendants now live in many of the fraternal Turkic peoples of Eurasia - among the Tatars, Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Uighurs, and many others. And few people know that the ethnos of medieval Tatars, which stopped the expansion of the Persians and the Chinese to the West of the World in Medieval centuries, is still alive. Despite the politicians of the tsars Romanovs and Bolsheviks dictators had divided and scattered this ethnos to different nations... About it and about many other things from the true history of Tatars and other fraternal Turkic peoples, which was hidden from us, had been written, in detail and proved, in the in the above-mentioned book "Forgotten Heritage of Tatars" (by Galy Yenikeyev).

Viktor von Turan
Viktor von Turan

Unfortunately, in the official history there are many pro-Chinese falsifications about the "wild nomads", "incredible cruelty of nomadic mongol-tatar conquerors", and about "a war between the Tatars and Genghis Khan” etc. Well, perhaps you know, that a famous Tatar historian-scientist D. Iskhakov wrote in 2000: “the real history of Tatars, of the people in every respect historical, is not written yet”. However, recently was published a book by Galy Yenikeyev (Galy Rashid uly Yenikey) about the unwritten (hidden) real history of Tatars. There are a lot of previously little-known historical facts, as well as 16 maps and illustrations in this book, and well-grounded rebuttal of the chinese-persian myths about "incredible cruelty of nomadic mongol-tatar conquerors", and about "a war between the Tatars and Genghis Khan” etc. This book presents a new, or rather "well-forgotten old" information about the true history of the medieval Tatars – the native nation of Genghis-Khan. On the cover of this book you can see the true appearance of Genghis Khan. It is his lifetime portrait. Notes to the portrait from the book say: "...In the ancient Tatar historical source «About the clan of Genghis-Khan» the author gives the words of the mother of Genghis-Khan: «My son Genghis looks like this: he has a golden bushy beard, he wears a white fur coat and goes on a white horse» [34, p. 14]. As we can see, the portrait of an unknown medieval artist in many ways corresponds to the words of the mother of the Hero, which have come down to us in this ancient Tatar story. Therefore, this portrait, which corresponds to the information of the Tatar source and to data from other sources, we believe, the most reliably transmits the appearance of Genghis-Khan...". This e-book you can easily find in the Internet, on Smashwords company website: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/175211 Therefore, primarily we should know the truth about the meaning of the names "Mongol" and "Tatar" (“Tartar") in the medieval Eurasia: the name "Mongol" until the 17th-18th centuries meant belonging to a political community, and was not the ethnic name. While “the name "Tatar" was “the name of the native ethnos (nation) of Genghis Khan ???” , “???Genghis Khan and his people did not speak the language, which we now call the "Mongolian”???" (Russian academic-orientalist V.P.Vasiliev, 19th century). This is also confirmed by many other little known facts. So in fact Genghis Khan was a Tatar and a great leader of the all Turkic peoples. But with time many of his descendants and tribesmen became spiritually disabled and forgot him and his invaluable doctrine and covenants... Tatars of Genghis Khan -medieval Tatars - were one of the Turkic nations, whose descendants now live in many of the fraternal Turkic peoples of Eurasia - among the Tatars, Kazakhs, Bashkirs, Uighurs, and many others. And few people know that the ethnos of medieval Tatars, which stopped the expansion of the Persians and the Chinese to the West of the World in Medieval centuries, is still alive. Despite the politicians of the tsars Romanovs and Bolsheviks dictators had divided and scattered this ethnos to different nations... About it and about many other things from the true history of Tatars and other fraternal Turkic peoples, which was hidden from us, had been written, in detail and proved, in the in the above-mentioned book "Forgotten Heritage of Tatars" (by Galy Yenikeyev).

bsnsimo
bsnsimo

The great Khan was truly expert at unleashing the power of his people. None other than Stephen Covey wrote that the possible performance gain is 500%. My own experience as an executive proved Covey was right. But when I was a command and control type, I was actually creating most of the problems I was trying so hard to solve and spent too much time blaming my people instead of myself. Once I figured out that their job was to figure out what to do, how to do and then do it, and my job was to help them with whatever they needed to excel at their work rather than commanding and controlling them, their performance rose significantly. Listening to their concerns and responding to those to their satisfaction or better whether with better training, tools, plans or discipline became my road to success as an executive/manager. It really feels great to be able to cause your people to love to come to work. Any executive/manager can learn how to do this because it is very simple. Best regards, Ben Simonton Author "Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed"

Koketso Mabuse
Koketso Mabuse

I think we are missing the point of the lesson. its not our moral judgement of the man but rather his tactical skills and how we can from what how he did learn methodology of leadership. The Lesson is learn from others and they do not need to be your friends but even your enemies.

mark16_15
mark16_15

"While Genghis Khan would ruthlessly murder dissenters, something to be avoided in most IT shops" So you're saying there are times when this might be necessary ;-)

psgeiger
psgeiger

Another business lesson that may be learned from the Mongolian Khanate is that, while his grandson Kublai Khan expanded the Mongol empire, the successive generations of Khan males were more interested in arrogating power to themselves than preserving what their ancestors had won at great price. The empire collapsed after the third generation of Khans. Sound familiar? In Mongolia today, "business" leaders are more interested in attaining great wealth than in advancing the national interest. I watched this happen during my 13 years in Mongolia as market economics replaced command economics. A telling example: the only Maybach limo I've seen was parked in front of the Bayangol Hotel in Ulan Bator (Ulaanbaatar -- Red Hero -- in Mongolian) while in the steam tunnels below the hotel lived some of the city's 2,000 abandoned children. This is not the vision of responsible capitalism.

DAS01
DAS01

I have to agree with LuvJohar. MK ('Mahatma') Gandhi had leadership qualities (e.g. the Salt Marches) and achieved his main aim (getting the Brits out of India) but used very different methods, but then, in contrast to Genghis Khan et al, he was not interested in conquering other peoples and making empires. And like many great/famous leaders he had his flaws. I do agree, though, that the article is interesting. I just don't like the comparison of business with war, and the use of warlike terminology.

MuhammadUmar
MuhammadUmar

Ghandi is a only Politician not Leader, he played in British Hands and fulfill their aims and achieved goals. The Said Person was a racialist ...

tzt8pj
tzt8pj

I fail to see why you'd pick a mass murder for a historical figure to demonstrate these useful skills, while many more exemplary people (e.g., Mohandas Gandhi) displayed exactly the same approach to attain their goals?

maszsam
maszsam

Seems like a lot more fun than haggeling about IT directions.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Twenty five years ago, a friend had me video tape him for a presentation he was making on the Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun. Ghengis Khan has been similarly studied by an author called John Man. And afterwards a rash of articles, not many of them referencing Man's work, come onto the scene. It seems there is a high demand for fodder for the "leadership secrets" mill. I'm not sure we should admire everything about the man. He did attain great heights,but deployed tactics we would not use in business.

mamtao309
mamtao309

I understand the PR side why the reference to Genghis Khan was used but the reality is that history and business are not always the same. Sure one can make references to a historical figure and compare certain aspects of what is recorded in history to the modern world. Remember history is written by the winners and facts are not always a requirement to what really happened. This is even more evident in recent events. I can see how one can compare Genghis to many corporations and CEO's that decimated companies that apply slash and burn to an industry so they can sit on on their golden thrones (or golden parachutes). Good article to stimulate conversation.

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

I vaguely remember something along the lines of: If a city resisted invasion, Ghengis Khan would have the city destroyed and all the occupants (or was it just the men?) put to death. There is a leading manager at my place who strongly resembles Ghengis Khan. Suggest a different plan to his vision, no matter how much more sensible, and your career aspirations (and often your aspirations to continued employment) are as good as dead.

Koketso Mabuse
Koketso Mabuse

I saw a movie but forgot to the name and in there a guy tells another "listen to the woman". Later the one being told does what his woman tells him and things go horribly bad and he turns to the friend and says but you said I must listen to the woman. The friendd replies I said listen to her but i never sadi do as she says. Advise is just that Advise. Get advise and make ur own mind up. Thank you for the Ghengis teaching will take it to heart.

StevenDDeacon
StevenDDeacon

One would think Genghis Khan studied Sun Tzu.

jonjensen
jonjensen

My son who has just spent three months in Mongolia doing parasitology research was advised to think of Ghengis as a combination of George Washington and Elvis.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Old Ghengis wasn't a big fan of "It was 'im". In fact that sort of thing made him quite cross, not even a losing at golf or laughing at his poor jokes would put him in a better mood. Got to be better...

kjmartin
kjmartin

Didn't Ricardo Montalban play him in the movie?

jdayman
jdayman

Why stop at Ghengis Khan and Adolf Hitler? Joseph Stalin comes to mind as another great leader worthy of study. He led his nation to turn back the invading German army in World War Two. Although he died in 1953, before the space race got any public attention, I would bet that his leadership was instrumental in the many "firsts" that the USSR achieved - Sputnik, the first man-made satellite in space. Yuri Gregarin, the first human in space. I'm being facetious of course. I doubt that there are any useful (positive) lessons to be learned by studying the leadership style of "Uncle Joe". And finally, to Patrick Gray, I'd like to say - "Thanks for the thought provoking article". It is well written and actually makes a lot of sense to me. I reject the notion that we can overlook the millions of murders and rapes attributed to the Mongol invasions. But I enjoyed reading the article.

BillGates_z
BillGates_z

Behead your enemies and rape their women.

nordergute
nordergute

Why not use Adolf Hitler as a source of inspiration for good leadership in IT? I'm pretty sure there are many a good lesson to be learned from him, considering the amount of work he was able to leverage from his staff.

DAS01
DAS01

Impressive! :-)

JamesRL
JamesRL

I read an interesting book about business dynasties in Canada, which basically posited a similar theory, that successive generations get farther away from the entrepreneurial drive and often the third generation loses the company.

LuvJohar
LuvJohar

MuhammadUmar- Go and Read about Mahatma Gandhi first before speaking in Public about him..... !!!!

Fairbs
Fairbs

The point of the article is not whether Genghis Khan was good or bad. It is what can be learned from him. When did Gandhi use the same approach as Khan? I don't remember Gandhi raping and killing as much.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Its the companies that are raping and pillaging the employees :(

v r
v r

Khan expanded his empire, in part, due to women in his life. Good book to show his delegation skills and the role of women in his expansion, is "The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire" by Jack Weatherford (Mar 1, 2011).

Slayer_
Slayer_

He failed to realize the changing landscape and tried to make bad alliances. In the end, he lost.

billballew
billballew

YOU need to go get a job somewhere you respect. This is occupy wallstreet s--- for deadbeats. Good luck with that.