Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Genghis Khan and Management


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

“History is written by the winners”??

Readers with an interest in nomadic cultures and communities would hark back to the times, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when there was a genuine clash of civilizations rather than the sexed up stuff peddled by Huntingdon that is so much in the news these days. Those were times when a small group of nomadic people called the Mongols united under Genghis Khan, moved out in all directions from their base in Karakorum (somewhere in Mongolia) and set about attacking the civilized city states and settled agriculturist communities that were dominant at the time. At its height, the Mongol empire was the largest the world has ever seen – stretching from the Black Sea deep in Europe to the Pacific Ocean in the east, from Moscow and Siberia in the north to the Himalayas and the Persian Gulf in the south. The three or four centuries that they were in power is mostly described as a dark time in history, when mankind was under attack from the scourge of an evil and cruel people, when the relentless pressure of barbaric nomads laid civilization low, when agricultural land was subsumed and converted into free ranges. And yet, it was a time of unprecedented exchange between east and west, a time when it was possible to travel overland from Italy to Beijing (can one do it today?), a time when established interests across the known world were broken and it was possible for ordinary people to make their mark. The old adage of history being written by winners could be changed to ‘history is written by those who can write’.

What was it about this small group of unlettered nomads that enabled them to rule the world? What enabled them to fight and win battles as far away as Leignitz (in 1241, a particularly interesting one because it was the Mongols western-most battle and the only one fought against the Teutonic Knights – more about this later) in today’s Poland, and in Myanmar, and around Baghdad, and in the outskirts of Vienna, exercises in logistics that must have been mind-boggling? How did they achieve such military domination, especially as this was achieved without larger numbers, superior weapons or a better economic base? How did such few people (at their height, there were about 700,000 Mongols) administrate such a vast empire? How did the empire last so long after the military dominance was lost? These questions are difficult to address because the Mongols themselves left no records, and one is thus dependent for information upon the educated elite among the civilized communities who were at the receiving end during this period. What I discovered during my inquiry into the Mongols of 1167 to 1552, especially the earlier part of this period, is relevant to any leader and manager today, and this is as follows.

Have core values, and enforce them: The Mongols, in keeping with their nomadic culture, placed a high value on simple things such as loyalty, honesty, generosity and an acceptance of the beliefs and way of life of others. They hated theft, and traitors were put to death horribly, even if they were betraying their rulers to the advantage of the Mongols. Apart from some core values, the Mongols did not impose upon those they ruled over – so much so that it was difficult for their enemies to rally around religion, both Muslim and Christian, race or ethnicity against them. The intense loyalty that they inspired enabled them to rule for far longer than their military dominance lasted – for example, the Russian princelings around Nyiznhi Novgorod and Moscow fought amongst themselves but all were scrupulously loyal to the Khan in Kazan and it was only in the 1550s that Ivan the Terrible smashed the Mongols by taking Kazan and Astrakhan. A common civil code called the Yasa was made applicable by Genghis Khan to the Mongols that was remarkably gender sensitive for the time – it outlawed adultery and the kidnapping of women (common practise in that day and age), required a woman’s consent for marriage, and made all children legitimate irrespective of the nature of relationship between the Mother and Father.

Get the best people into leadership positions, and ensure that good people rise: The Mongol empire was the first (and last??) genuine meritocracy in the history of mankind – unlike the armies of the day in which noble birth and connections enabled a person to get ahead, there was only one way by which to get command in a Mongol army – proven competence. They were indifferent to your birth, they were indifferent to whether you were a Mongol or not, and they were even indifferent to whether your abilities had been demonstrated against them – in fact, many of their commanders were from armies that had fought against the Mongols, and one of Genghis Khan’s most trusted generals had earlier shot Genghis’s horse from under him as an enemy foot soldier. Mongol armies were therefore much better led than their opponents, enabling their smaller forces to take on much larger armies and win. The meritocracy transferred on to civil life as well – administrators in the empire were also chosen and promoted on the basis of ability.

Be realistic, encourage subordinates to be frank and to speak their minds: Genghis Khan was one of those rare leaders who did not encourage flattery and was not afraid to listen to stuff that he did not like to hear. As a result, his generals gave him realistic assessments and, in turn, were given realistic assessments by their subordinates. This percolated across the empire and, again, was in sharp contrast to other armies of the day.

Understand your advantages and use them: The typical Mongol soldier was an expert horseman and could shoot an arrow accurately over a long distance, even while riding in the other direction. Each soldier would ride with three or four horses, and could change horses while riding at speed. This enabled a Mongol army to travel far larger distances much faster than other armies of the day. It also enabled them to maneuver nimbly in battle, change battle plans effectively and retreat quickly.

Know your adversary: The western armies of the day, and especially elite cavalry forces such as the Teutonic Knights, were huge men with heavy armour mounted on large horses and were formidable opponents who were able to smash their way through opposing forces. The Mongols simply shot their horses – the same Knight on the ground was a sitting duck. Similarly, western armies had a culture in which the commander had to be and be seen to be in the thick of the fighting setting an example to his troops, and was thus easily identifiable in battle. The Mongols would identify and kill the commander and thus render their opponents confused and not very sure who was giving the orders. Mongol commanders, on the other hand, were not easy to identify in battle. Western armies also saw retreat as a loss, and when their opponents retreated they would charge in with their cavalry to mow them down. The Mongols thus used the retreat to draw their opponents into traps by pretending disarray, turning around and fleeing, and thus inviting the enemy into a cavalry charge that invariably led to a massacre at a place of the Mongols’ choosing. This was later called the ‘steppes retreat’, a battle tactic that the Russians would use very effectively against Napolean in 1812.

What you are matters, not what you look like: A Mongol army going into battle looked like a horde descending, they did not appear to have any order or formation and there were no sounds of drums and trumpets. In actual fact, the Mongols were highly disciplined and tightly organized troops and used the decimal formation of platoons of ten, units of hundred, divisions of thousand and armies of ten thousand, who used visual tools to coordinate and communicate with each other in battle.

Use information technology effectively: Like other great IT innovations, the courier system (the Mongols, incidentally, were its inventors) was initially developed for military purposes. Mongol armies would have daily courier services running between them – it enabled them to know exactly where each other were, and if they planned to converge at a certain time and place they were usually able to do it to the day. The courier system also invariably enabled them to know exactly where their opponents were, and thus to choose the place and time of battle. The Journal of Military History, in its description of the battle of Leignitz, is instructive on this matter – it says that Henry the Pious of Silesia was expecting to join forces with the King of Bohemia to take on the Mongols but did not know where these forces were and when they would be able to join up. The Mongol generals Batu Khan and Subatai Khan, on the other hand, knew exactly where the Bohemian forces were (about four days away) and were keen to enforce the battle before their opponents joined forces. They did so and won the battle with a far smaller force.

Use PR as a weapon: Massacres, loot, rape and pillage were not Mongol inventions, though they used them as a means of subduing opposing populations and avoiding battles. When the Mongols did go into battle against a city-state and win, they would systematically destroy, rape and kill. They would then send survivors out to tell other city-states about what had happened – those that were opting to fight rather than pay the Mongols a tribute would invariably rethink their options. It is interesting to note those who were not killed in the city-states the Mongols conquered – the interpreters, the doctors and the engineers – the army used them for their further campaigns.

To conclude: It is certainly not possible for most of us to display the leadership qualities of Genghis Khan, even though many of us have his blood (according to Oxford University, about one out of every six people on earth today are descended from him and he has been nominated the ‘most successful alpha male’ ever). However, the Mongols are of some contemporary interest because it is only now, 777 years after Genghis’s death, that a similar world military domination by one power is being seen.

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