Management Lessons from Ghengis Khan

August 29th, 2006 by

As the summer draws to a close, it’s a good time to step back and take the long view. In this case, the view goes all the way back to 1200 AD. My daughter’s high school summer reading included an intriguing book entitled: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford. The great Khan’s name probably does not come to mind when you think of the world’s management innovators. Indeed, most of us think of the “Mongol Hordes” as a scourge of civilization, a brutal and merciless force that arose in the far deserts of China and swept westward in a destructive path. There’s some truth to that image, but a huge dose of western-centric prejudice as well.
Weatherford has set out to revise the historical perspective on Khan. He sees him as a great innovator, a master strategist and a brilliant manager. As the first person to unite the Mongol tribes, Khan created the largest and last of the great nomadic powers, conquering all the way from India to the gates of the west.
While Weatherford has made no attempt to translate Kahn’s experience into lessons for today’s managers, the Insider has leapt into the void and done just that. Here are a few of the management lessons that emerge from a reading of Weatherford’s book:
Reward merit: Khan moved away from hereditary privilege by promoting his most talented followers. As a result, his organization benefitted from the best talent, not just Khan’s relatives.
Discipline is key: demand self-control and discipline from every warrier and every leader. He abolished the long-established practice of stealing wives, which fragmented the tribes into warring camps. After a conquest, the spoils were carefully inventoried and then divided for the benefit of all.
Organize, Organize, Organize: Contrary to the “mongol horde” image, Khan developed a meticulous system for organizing his army. Using a sequence of tens, his basic unit was a squad of 10 warriers, united in a company of 10 squads, eventually reaching an army of multiple thousands. Every camp had the same physical lay out, so messengers could move from camp to camp and find the leadership without the delay of having to ask directions.
Turn your opponents strengths into a weakness, part one: confronted with great walled cities, Khan built a higher wall of logs around the outer wall of the city, so his men could look down into the city and strike fear in the hearts of its people.
Turn your opponents strengths into a weakness, part two: Khan would have his armies flee in mock terror of armed knights. The knights, in all their splendid (and cumbersome) gear, would pursue his army to the point of exhaustion. Khan’s disciplined warriers then swung back and easily obliterated the bewildered knights. Khan’s destruction of the princes of Russia was a blow from which that country never recovered.
Use psychology and trickery: Khan’s amassed troops might prepare for battle with an eerie silence, spooking their opponents. Khan’s troops would light multiple fires, so they appeared to have more troops than they actually did. Using selective violence, Khan struck terror into the hearts of his opponents, while offering all but the leaders an opportunity to join his ranks.
Be fast: Khan never used an infantry. All his warriers were on horseback and all carried or acquired their own provisions as they rode. They didn’t need a long baggage train. They crossed the desert in winter, to minimize the need for water. They tightly wrapped their bodies in scarves to keep internal organs from bouncing around during their 60 mile a day rides. His warriers wore leather, not metal armor, so they were much more mobile than their western counterparts.
Embrace new technologies. Khan invited his captives to join him. In this manner, he brought in skilled masons, architects, engineers and writers whom he encountered in both the far east and the west.
Have faith in your own faith, but be tolerant of others: Unique among leaders of his time, Khan tolerated all religions. While confident in his own faith, he tolerated the faiths of others. He even sponsored perhaps the first religious debate in history. By contrast, Louis IX of France, convinced that the mongols were the lost tribe of Israel, punished Jews in France with extraordinary brutality – for which, naturally, he was dubbed “St. Louis.”
To be sure, Khan’s own legendary brutality severely limits his utility as a role model for contemporary managers. He was fond of rolling his opponents into carpets and stashing them beneath his tent floor, where they starved to death. He was known to use catapults to hurl men, women and children over the walls of a beseiged city. He rounded up peasants from the countryside, pushing them ahead of his troops to absorb the first blows of his opponents and to fill up the moats in front of walled cities. Upon capturing a city, he immediately slew all the leaders and all of the wealthy.
Admittedly, this is not exactly an “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to leadership. (Then again, it might remind some people of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop, the legendary CEO of Sunbeam Corp.) In any event, Genghis Khan cast a long, long shadow in history, so in the waning days of summer, we thought it was worth a few moments to reflect on some of the innovations he brought to the ever-evolving menu of management tools.