Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan

Have you ever been asked who your hero is? Who is the first person who comes to mind?

For me, it’s Genghis Khan. Sounds crazy, I know. But hear me out.

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Most of what we know in the west about Genghis Khan is that he was a brutal war lord as the History channel will have you believe. His conquests were the start to the largest empire known to man. He and the Mongols were a blood thirsty horde. Most of this information we have is written from his enemies, the people who didn’t like him. Of course they wrote negative things about Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan encouraged the propaganda because he needed fear on his side. His army was many times smaller than his enemies.

The Mongols didn’t have written language until Genghis Khan. He had the Mongol script developed. What Mongols did write down they kept secret, which is why we don’t know much from their point of view. All that changed when the Secret History was discovered.

Genghis Khan was the first ruler to user paper money. He created the first Pony Express postal service. Genghis Khan influenced the USA’s own founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Freedom of religion? That was Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan had ingenuity. He was creative, tenacious, and had an indomitable sprit. All are factors that I believe are important to have in life. It doesn’t matter if you are down on your luck at work or in your personal life if you have those characteristics. I believe each of those can be learned, practiced, and formed into habit.

Genghis Khan wasn’t perfect but he didn’t rise to be the leader of the Mongols by being purely ruthless.

Without further ado, leadership lessons from Genghis Khan!

Networking

Part of how Genghis Khan rose to be the top Mongol leader was because he knew how to network. When Genghis Khan first began rising out of poverty, Mongolia was composed of different steppe tribes. The group that followed Genghis was called the Mongols and that is how the country eventually got its name.

One of the first networking efforts he made was with Jamukha. Juamukha was a childhood friend of Genghis but he had a tribe and was able to become it’s leader. Genghis Khan worked a deal with Jamukha to use Jamukha’s army to help rescue his wife, Borte.

Unfortunately, once Genghis Khan started having real power on the steppe, he and Jamukha became arch rivals. After many battles, Genghis Khan finally defeated Jamukha. Genghis Khan was willing to offer him forgiveness but Jamukha refused. Genghis Khan was then forced to execute his blood brother.

What we can learn from this is the power of networking. Without Jamukha’s help in the beginning of their friendship, Genghis Khan would have never been able to rescue his wife. We need to be prepared to recognize when a relationship has gone sour. Even when we try to keep the bridge, it’s not always possible.

Value Skill over Title

Genghis Khan promoted people based on merit and skill, not family blood. Genghis didn’t care if you weren’t Mongolian. He valued people based on their skill for fighting, writing, or leading and empowered them accordingly.

When he conquered a city, he sought out carpenters, metalsmiths, weaving, or people who could write, and assimilated them into the Mongol empire. These people were rarely the royal family.

Empower People Who No One Else Does

He empowered women at a time when most had none. His daughters ruled the conquered cities left behind.

His daughters had soldiers of their own and rode into battle with their father, Genghis Khan. When they conquered a city, Genghis would send his daughters into it to find the people of skill to bring into the empire.

When Genghis Khan left a city to start the next campaign, he would leave a daughter behind to govern the conquered area. He would marry his daughter to the prince of the area. Then he would strip the prince of all his power and bring him along on the campaign. This left his daughter without any problems enforcing her rule.

In fact, by 1226 it was the Mongol queens who ruled the Silk Route (Queens, 81) not Genghis Khan.

Seek out Advice 

Genghis Khan sought out counsel from people of all backgrounds and views but in the end he made his own decisions. For example, he sought counsel with the religious leaders of an area, because they knew the local landscape and political climate. He knew if he could get on their side he would have support in the region after he left.

One example is the Toasist monk, know as the Man of the Mountain, who visited him in Mongolia. The monk was a prominent man in his region and had advised kings before. The monk told Genghis how he should abstain from impure food, hunting, and women. Genghis politely but firmly, told the monk that Mongols ride and hunt before they can walk and that they weren’t going to change that now. Genghis Khan stuck to his guns, he didn’t immediately start doubting himself.

The monk left thinking he had bestowed great wisdom on the Khan and might even convert him to Toasism. Genghis on the other hand gained the monk’s support, meaning he would keep his stronghold in the area of China he conquered.

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Great Leaders Create Leaders

I read a quote once that great leaders create leaders. Genghis Khan did that. He didn’t try to conquer everyone himself, although he did lead many campaigns (leading by example). He gave missions to his sons, hoping they would become the leaders he wanted them to be.

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One time, he gave a mission to his grandson to take out an enemy general and his army. The grandson used all the teachings of warfare that Genghis had taught him but was still defeated. The enemy general had been studying the Mongol ways. It was the first Mongol defeat since Genghis started his conquest out of the Mongolian steppe.

Instead of becoming angry at his grandson and chastising him for what he did wrong, Genghis provided constructive feedback. He pointed out the mistakes as a lesson so he would never make them again.

I hope to be this type of leader. One that lifts others up and gives them a chance even if means they don’t make it. And if they don’t, I hope to be there for them with continued guidance instead of mockery.

Think Innovatively

Genghis Khan was an innovative thinker. Most people (in the USA) know Genghis Khan for his barbarian horde. However, his goal was not to conquer people for the sake of it, but to build up vast trading networks. He knew for his empire to survive, it had to continue building up.

He sent out a large caravan to a Muslim Shah in what is now part of Afghanistan to start trading. Unfortunately, the governor of the area raided the caravan, killing everyone except for one person who managed to escape. This single action drove Genghis Khan into Afghanistan.

Sometimes, the way to be the best is to know your strengths and weaknesses. Delegate tasks that you are not strong in or out source. You can’t always do everything yourself but be prepared for it if that time comes.

Genghis Khan, tried to trade with Muslim tribes for goods that the Mongol nation didn’t have. Unfortunately, when they killed his people he was forced to act on behalf of his nation.

Conclusion

I encourage you to read about past leaders in history. We can learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future. Hence why we perform Lessons Learned in the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge).

Genghis Khan wasn’t perfect but he was a great leader. We can learn from his mistakes and his achievements to make ourselves better leaders today.

Sources:

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire

Genghis Khan’s Quest for God

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