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Lessons in Leadership: Genghis to Kublai Khan

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Reading this masterful series of books written by Conn Iggulden we are transported to another place and time. Orders from above were not to be questioned. Lives depended on obedience. Debates were often settled with a sword.

So leadership must have been easy? Quite the contrary, it took special leaders, in special times to build as this story begins with an outcast single, starving family that are hunted and alone on the plains of Mongolia. It tells the story of Genghis beginning a nation and ends with Kublai Khan ruling an empire larger than those of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. That is a feat worth studying.

So what made the Mongols special? Were their horses faster? Were their numbers greater? Was their technology superior?

Studying the lessons in this series of books we learn that:

Their horses were in fact smaller and sometimes slower than their opponents – but they were studier can could ride further than anyone they fought. We also learn that the Mongols typically travelled with spare mounts, so that they could travel 60 to 80 miles in a day and still arrive relatively fresh and ready for a battle the next morning.

They spare mounts also gave the impression of numbers greater than the reality. Of course the Mongols used this anxiety or fear to create doubt in their opponents head. The Mongols would sweep aside lesser opposition with tactics and speed, but would also confuse and baffle larger opponents with different or the small tactics on a larger scale.

Nor was their technology superior, except that they crafted their bows with care and learnt how to give them great strength. The distance they could achieve with these bows and the training and practice that went into their use gave the Mongols a great advantage as they could fire while riding their mounts at a gallop.

These mounted volleys from a distance, over and over, made many a lesser trained opponent turn and run as they watched their own arrows fall at a distance from the Mongols.

The Mongols also used a decentralized command structure that was based on units of 10 men that formed into a company of 100 men, a battalion of 1000 men and a division (tuman) of 10,000 men.

While a son or grandson or great grandson might get command of a Tuman and become a general, all the other positions were earned on merit. The Mongol army had democratic tendencies as the smaller unit leaders were chosen by the men themselves.

The Mongols were also great adapters – adapting weapons and tactics from the Chin, Arabs or Persians – they learnt, they mastered they conquered.

So were they the ruthless blood crazed maniacs that we hear of in western culture. Not necessarily. Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis, was a scholar. If he had not done what he did a fictional account of Kublai’s attack on Sung (Part of Modern day China) lands would be lubricious. Kublai had no experience in battle; had lived mostly a scholarly life.

A single city in Sung territory held more people than the entire Mongol nation. Yet Kublai invaded it, left to secure being Khan when he older brother was assassinated and his younger brother usurped it. Kublai isolated him, recruited allies and defeated his own brother – then he went back to finish conquering the Sung who threw army after army at him that outnumbered his own.

So how did Kublai do it?

Kublai had learnt, as the Mongols did, to live off the land, but he had also learnt the Mongol lesson of using cunning to defeat an enemy and not just numbers – as they were often greatly outnumbered in their battles. So outnumbered that they often spent all their arrows, but the enemy was still standing.

He studied the situation. He learnt from the masters, such as Sun Tzu. But with his mothers and then his older brothers urging, who had become Khan, Kublai left behind what he knew and was comfortable with to begin a great adventure.

Kublai had a goal – to destroy the Sung nation – which all his generals and followers could buy into and share in the passion.

Kublai had mentors, his mother, his brother the Khan, the Buddhist monk Yao Shu, his orlok (warlord) – who was the son of Genghis’ greatest general – but he never accepted impossible for an answer. He would think and plot a way by understanding his surroundings, his enemy and his men. He would give his men small victories so they would follow more willingly. He would use the cunning the Mongols so prized to feed and shelter his men. He would use mercy and respect instead of just fear to achieve what he wanted – to the point where the enemy, were in some cased, quire pleased to be ‘conquered’ b y him. He had learnt the lessons of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as a master would. He could understand it, apply it, teach it and modify it for new situations, as the introduction of gunpowder was forcing.

Kublai was a leader of men, with the training, practice, knowledge, confidence, vision, insight, goals and passion. He knew how to gain trust and give trust. He knew how to give his men small victories leading up to great victories. He was able to delegate. And perhaps most important he had the determination and perseverance to overcome obstacles and find solutions.

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