This article is about a ruler who can be a great inspiration for all of us. Someone we can learn a lot from. Someone, whose history we should definitely be aware of, especially, business Leaders. His name is Ghenghis Khan.
I am sure, most of you are shocked to hear his name. It’s not surprising because most of the time history paints him as a bloodthirsty barbarian and a murderous invader. There’s no denying that he was all of that. But the same can be said of many other great conquerors and more importantly, there is a lot more to Ghenghis Khan that’s completely ignored by the historians.
Ghenghis deserves to be included in the list of the world’s greatest rulers and empire builders with the likes of Alexander and Ceaser.
So what makes Ghenghis so awesome?
Let’s start by getting a complete sense of his military achievements.
The Mongols conquered a bigger area than anyone else in history -- 12 million square miles i.e. equal to the size of Africa. His predecessors ruled for longer than anyone else. The rule of the last Mongol finally ended when the emir of Uzbekistan was deposed in 1920. They vanquished all the great kingdoms of their time. They captured more in 25 years than what the Romans did in 400 years. It included 30 modern day countries -- from the Chinese to the Europeans and everyone in between. The foundations of his empire were so strong that it didn’t wither after his death and continued to grow for another 150 years.
Unlike many other great rulers, Ghenghis was fully self-made and started his life with nothing. He built everything from scratch on his own. In fact, there was no Mongol ruler when he was born. There were just a bunch of warring tribes, who were fighting with each other all the time. Ghenghis was a weak and timid child growing up. But through sheer determination and force of will, he first became the leader of his tribe and then unified all the tribes of the Mongolian Steppes under his leadership. Then, together they went out and captured almost the whole world and became wealthy and better off in every possible way.
His military techniques were innovative and revolutionary. The armies of those times were bulky and slow moving as they carried large food supplies and baggage trains and heavy artillery. On the other hand, Ghenghis built an army of swift moving Cavalry archers, which was nimble and agile. Mongol fighters were self-sufficient. They slept in the saddle and hunted for food. The Mongol army had unmatched speed and an element of surprise, which they used quite regularly to overwhelm much larger armies in the battlefield.
A very popular military technique of that era was siege warfare as most cities were well-fortified. His engineers would build siege equipment on demand from the logically available materials. They would plunder the neighbouring areas to create a sense of panic for those inside the fort. Together, they made the Mongols the masters of siege warfare. Their siege warfare technique was so effective that it made forts completely redundant.
His greatness was not limited to military conquests and extended to other areas of empire building as well. One of the things he really encouraged was trade and commerce. He created the largest free trade zone in the world along the silk route. He possibly built more bridges than anyone else to enable faster movement of goods. He established universal laws to enable trade and his successors created the first paper currency.
Ghenghis was a terror for his enemies. But he was great for his own people. He didn’t hoard all the wealth he amassed. It was distributed amongst his people to increase their living standards as well.
Ghenghis was a firm believer in meritocracy. In his regime, people were given positions based on merit and ability and not on kinship, which was usually the norm with all rulers. Even the skilled and talented people from those he conquered were given positions of responsibility in accordance to their ability. Ghenghis was also an inclusive ruler starting with religious freedom for everyone. Most people think Ghenghis was a Muslim. In reality, he worshipped the sky. He also ensured protection for women and all tradespeople. These ideas of meritocracy and inclusion are buzzwords today but were unheard of in the twelfth century. These examples clearly show that Ghenghis was farsighted and years ahead of his time.
Finally, Ghenghis contributed hugely towards the civilisational exchange of ideas and knowledge. The Mongols didn’t create anything. They didn’t write any books or make any scientific discoveries. They only knew how to ride and fight. But, Ghenghis had an appreciation for talent. He never killed the skilled artisans that were captured in war. Instead, he would take the best ideas and most skilled people from every place he captured and take them to all corners of his empire so that each and every region under his rule was enriched by their talent. As a result German miners were sent to China and Chinese doctors to Persia.
This cross movement of ideas and people was a boon for innovation. In one of the best examples of innovation, his successors combined the gunpowder of China, the flamethrowers of Persia and the metal balls of Europe to create the first modern day cannon.
These achievements become even more incredible when you consider that Ghenghis was illiterate and had no exposure in life.
To summarise, Ghenghis was a military genius and a great conqueror. He was a visionary who gave a massive boost to trade and innovation. He created a mighty, long lasting empire in which his people prospered and benefitted from his revolutionary ideas about meritocracy and inclusion. How many people in history can claim to have done so much?
It’s not that his achievements were always ignored. Early renaissance writers like Geoffrey Chaucer and Francis Bacon praised him. But over time, the world forgot the good stuff and he was only remembered as a blood thirsty Barbarian.
There’s so much more to him. His story is fascinating. Even the likes of Ben Horowitz (of Andressen Horowitz fame ) have taken inspiration from Ghenghis to outline leadership and cultural lessons for modern day leaders.
I have learnt all of this from Jack Weatherford’s amazing book the great mongol - Ghenghis Khan and the making of the modern world. This book is the best one on Ghenghis and a highly credible source because Weatherford is the only western worker to have had access to ancient mongol texts.
I would encourage you to read more about Ghenghis and not get misled by the barbarian narrative.
Avnish is a Co-Founder and COO at CaratLane. He is passionate about building new businesses and has spent more than 15 years in the consumer internet space. In one of his previous roles at Times Internet, he built Code Gladiators, which is now the largest coding competition in the world. He is a graduate of IIM Lucknow and Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. Outside of work, he loves to read a wide range of topics and actively follows a lot of different sports. He writes and talks about his interests from time to time.