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November - 2013 - issue > In My Opinion

Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan

Utkarsh Rai
VP & MD-Infinera India
Friday, November 8, 2013
Utkarsh Rai
Infinera India, a branch of Infinera Corporation(NASDAQ:INFN) is a provider of digital transport node (DTN) system that utilizes the photonic integrated circuit (PIC) technology to enable digital processing and management of data. Infinera has a market cap of Rs.8290 crores.

There are many people who by the virtue of occupying key positions are called leaders. However, only a handful of them actually exhibit true leadership qualities. So who should be a leader? A leader is a person who has a heart for HR and a mind for business. Many so called leaders possess business acumen and are good in their own domains, but they still are not able to deliver. They are distant, hands-off and emotionally detached from their teams, failing to align the team with the organizational goals.
Let us look into the history of many conquerors who have achieved lofty goals, but ultimately faced miserable, untimely deaths - Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon to name a few. In contrast, Genghis Khan died at home surrounded by his family members and his empire survived many generations with the last ruling descendant, the Emir of Bukhara, remaining in power till the early last century. It is important to look into how an illiterate tribal living in the steppes went on to occupy a vast landmass in twenty-five years, ranging from the Indus River to the Danube, from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. What Leadership traits did he hone to achieve such a feat and how can these traits be useful to our modern business leaders? It is all about people.
Communicate the Purpose: By 1211 AD, Genghis Khan had united the tribes in Mongolia and formed his kingdom. The Jurched king with his capital at modern day Beijing, demanded the submission of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan however, decided to wage the war. His army had never crossed the Gobi desert and faced an army many times larger. He knew very well, that people would have doubts over the reason for such a war. He held a public discussion, small group meetings and even met each and every soldier individually to explain why the war was important, even though soldiers are supposed to follow orders without question. He reinforced this message a few times to ensure a complete buy-in. That was the first battle which later opened the whole world for Genghis Khan to conquer.
Organizations do conduct all-hands and send mass mailers to communicate their goals. Larger companies and geographically diverse organizations in particular, are more prone to messages which could be lost either in content or in passion, when they finally reach employees. If the goal is lofty and takes time to achieve, a sustained approach by the leadership team to reinforce the message at every level and an honest update on the progress, could remove doubts in employees\'minds that do crop up during execution. Failing to do so, could result in employees becoming reluctant warriors over time, when chasing organizational goals, and eventually not meeting them.
Transparency in Compensation and Benefits: In those days, after winning any war, the city was looted by the winning army. Any soldier and their superiors kept whatever was found and sometimes fought among themselves for the loot. Genghis Khan introduced a fair and transparent system of distribution of loot based on rank and file following a precise formula. Anyone hiding any loot was punished severely. This avoided any ill will or rivalry among soldiers.
Current organizations operate at various levels of transparency. Some organizations make their bonus plans visible while a few organizations tend to make the salary band of one level higher visible to employees. Organizations are still far from achieving full transparency in compensation. Managers spend a considerable amount of time, in dealing with compensation issues. A good leader should at least define the compensation philosophy and make it public, equipping managers to handle it with utmost care to allay their concerns. A sincere effort by management is always well appreciated.
Culture of learning and trusting: In the initial days, Genghis Khan\'s army had never fought a war to capture any walled city. When he attacked Tangut, a walled city, he exhausted all his options to capture it. He then came up with a unique idea to divert the channel of the Yellow river to flood the city, but instead they flooded their own camp. He saved his troops and improved on these learnings. He forebode remembering any dead or any defeat, instead wanted his army to learn from such events and move on. Unlike other conquerors who made dying on the battlefield an honour, his focus was to save the lives of his soldiers. He won most of his battles even before the first arrow was shot, by creating fear psychoses, propaganda wars and many other tactics.
What type of culture do modern leaders\' setup? Are risk takers rewarded or they are side-lined, if they fail? Are post-mortems conducted to learn or to lay blame? Does the team march towards a common goal or do individuals pursue their own agendas?

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