Learning from a devastating leader

There is much to be gained from reading the stories of great leaders who brought positive changes to the world, but is there anything to be gained from studying the leadership style of someone who is most remembered for having caused more slaughter, devastation and destruction than anyone before him? John Man would have us believe so, in his book The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan.

The author is a historian rather than a business expert, but he does manage to draw a number of lessons out of his retelling of the story of Genghis Khan, including: control the message; accept criticism; get a vision; keep promises; share hardship; know your limitations; make loyalty the prime virtue and reward it; make firm rules and make them clear; get real; in peace train for war; make your interests the state’s interests; choose an heir and allow debate; employ the best; surprise + terror + magnanimity = victory; philosophize (or at least pretend to); cultivate humility; plan for eternity; and know your limits.

One of the striking features of the Genghis Khan described by the author is his strength of character and the way in which his behaviour differed from what might be expected of a despot. He does not appear to have been motivated by a greed for more possessions. He maintained an austere lifestyle. He readily admitted his own inadequacies and failings. And yet he had a fierce drive which led him to what he regarded as great success.

The author’s main leadership resources seem to have been Primal Leadership by Goleman et al and Good to Great by Collins, and I found the attempt at assessing Genghis Khan’s emotional intelligence a bit far-fetched. It is hard to determine the extent to which Genghis Khan’s character traits really can be ascertained from the limited source materials so many centuries after the event, but the book is certainly an interesting one to read, and the leadership lessons drawn are worth pondering.