Leadership lessons from dictators and warlords

A bronze statue of Genghis Khan, by Buryat sculptor Dashi Namdakov, was placed at Marble Arch this weekend. The occasion lead Kate to consider the khan’s legacy and his leadership style.

I can never decide whether Genghis Khan was a ruthless bully who would have benefitted from anger management coaching or if he is an early exemplar of necessary traits for today’s great leaders.

Like a lot of great autocratic leaders, he was probably both.

I find Genghis Khan, or Temujin, particularly interesting because he gathered people around him and drew them to his cause. True, his father had been a Mongol aristocrat and tribal leader but he died when Temujin was young and the family were fugitives for much of his early life. He started almost from scratch, with only his father’s good name and his own force of personality and fighting prowess. He gathered a few followers and was able to win the leadership of his own tribe. From this base he united the Mongols and then conquered and enlisted the neighbouring Turkic and Tatar nomads. With this army he conquered a vast territory. Temujin went from fugitive to ruler of much of Asia in less than 50 years. His immediate successors went on to create the world’s largest contiguous empire.

It is an incredible achievement and he clearly couldn’t have done it without having outstanding leadership skills. But he was also a brutal oppressor who ordered the mass murder of conquered peoples. I will leave it to others to argue about whether Genghis Khan’s massacres count as genocide but his atrocities would be considered war crimes by today’s standards. It is impossible to come up with an accurate body count for the Mongol conquests but it has been estimated at 40 million, which was close to 10 percent of the world’s population at the time.

That’s the thing with conquerors and warlords, they are usually great leaders but they also tend to kill a lot of people. This make us a bit squeamish about discussing their leadership abilities.

Many years ago I was on a management development course and the facilitator started by asking us for examples of great leaders. I suggested Hitler, which, given that this was a local government course, went down like a lead weight. (Throwing metaphorical hand-grenades during training courses was one of my favourite pastimes when I was in my twenties.) People were uncomfortable discussing Hitler’s leadership qualities.

But he was as good as Genghis Khan. Like Temujin, Hitler also gathered people around him. He went from leading a group of seven ex-soldiers to ruling most of Europe in twenty years. You don’t do that without some leadership ability.

It’s OK, it seems, to hold up a brutal conqueror from 800 years ago as an exemplar of leadership. History professors can cash in on the airport management book market with The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan. Other professions can have a go too. Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, for example. No, really!

Coming soon, The Genghis Khan Approach to Team Building, Performance Management; Genghis Khan style! and What Genghis Khan can teach us about Employee Engagement.

OK, I’m being facetious again but you wouldn’t see The Leadership Secrets of Adolf Hitler or Manage your firm the Joseph Stalin Way on bookshelves. Is it simply the passing of time that makes it OK to use warlords like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as leadership models?

In many ways, Stalin provides more apt lessons in leadership for modern corporate executives because he worked his way up through an existing bureaucracy. He had no military ability, having been rejected for service during the First World War. His key skill was in building internal alliances and harnessing the power of the Communist Party and the Red Army to dispose of his opponents. Saddam Hussein was similar. Like Stalin, whom he studied closely, Saddam had little military experience but used the existing structure of a political party to gain power. Both men came from poor backgrounds but learned how to use powerful bureaucracies ruthlessly for their own ends. Their lives might provide more useful career-building insights for today’s executives than those of medieval warlords.

Now there’s a book for someone brave enough!

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7 Responses to Leadership lessons from dictators and warlords

  1. Fair points. Similar observations re: Vikings here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJqEKYbh-LU

    – Bob

  2. charliemcmenamin says:


    Jamie @ Blood & Treasure got to this point – or somewhere near it, anyway – last year. You might find the comments thread is quite fun.

    • Rick says:

      This is brilliant Charlie. “Feel the Fear and Beg for Mercy” is my favourite. I need to find an opportunity to work that in somewhere….

  3. Pingback: Leadership lessons from dictators and warlords - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  4. dustandwater says:

    I teach English as a foreign language and recently set a speaking task where my students were to describe someone that inspires them. The last to speak started with a cryptic introduction, refraining from naming his subject until near the end and giving instead a brief history of the person. It became quite clear to me early on that he was about to list the virus of none other than Adolf Hitler and initially, I was rather impressed that he had taken on such a challenge. Unfortunately, he listed at the end towards shock and smug inappropriateness. Nevertheless, I have always thought it a weakness to shy away from accepting the elements of greatness often to be found in the bad.

    This is a well considered and well written post and makes some valuable points.

    • Rick says:

      Heh heh! There’s always one isn’t there? Trouble is, when I was a student the ‘one’ often used to be me. Anything to wind up the lecturers and get people arguing.

      Mischief aside, though, Hitler must have had some leadership qualities to get as far as he did. It’s interesting to look at what they were.

  5. Pingback: So this is permanence? | workessence

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