Temuchin, later Genghis, Khan was born in 1162 near Lake Baikal, Mongolia, rising from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous warlords of history (excellent longer bio available here). Blessed with the ability to lead and inspire his fellow men, he is credited with uniting the warring Mongol tribes and founding a mighty empire which, at its peak, would cover between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles. As a historical figure, he commands a highly mixed reputation – a man capable of great acts of cruelty and slaughter, and yet a man of vision, leadership and surprising religious tolerance. As we open this “Famous People In History” series, here are three things I suggest we can all take from the legacy of this great man.
- Innovation, flexibility, and openness to ideas
Genghis Khan was not a man afraid to do things differently – when he saw an opportunity to do things better, he took it, culture and tradition be damned. A perfect example is Khan’s decision to abolish inherited aristocratic titles, a decision that did much to put an end to tribal warring among the Mongols despite being a long and entrenched way of life. There was no sentimentality for the past, merely a willingness to put in place the most effective system.
And in fact, this is a thread that runs throughout the anecdotes passed down to us about Genghis Khan’s rule. Many have pointed out, for instance, that there was a meritocratic streak to his reign. We know that he took on a range of advisors both from lower backgrounds and even from conquered territories – and that he actually took the time to listen and take counsel with these trusted advisors. And whenever he saw a good idea – China’s siege weapons, for instance – he was quick to adopt it. The picture we gain is not of a man weighed down by dogma or preconceived ideas, but of a man apparently open and flexible to whatever ideas work best. And it is precisely this sort of attitude that can still help us in navigating our lives today.
- The ability to bring people together under a united vision
Say what you like about Genghis Khan, but he seems to have had an uncanny ability to inspire loyalty in people. Britannica encyclopaedia has a nice anecdote from when Genghis (then known as Temujin) was still very young and living in extreme poverty following the murder of his father and the banishment of his family. Having escaped from captivity, Genghis was on the run when he was found by a member of the enemy tribe. Impressed by the fire in the young man’s eyes, so the story goes, the tribe member did not denounce him but instead helped him to escape at the risk of his own life. And throughout his later adult life, Khan would continue to attract people to his cause and retain their loyalty through a combination of strategic alliances, religious tolerance, and the inclusion of conquered foes on the basis of their individual merits.
Today, the struggles we face might be rather less bloody, but the fact remains that nothing truly great is achieved by going it alone. Common cause, teamwork, a shared vision – these are all things we desperately need to succeed in today’s world – and a skill that Genghis Khan, in his own way and for his own time, seems to have instinctively mastered.
- Agility and mobility
One of the key reasons that Genghis Khan enjoyed such huge military success is that his armies were agile and they were fast. Mongol armies embodied the tribal nomadic origins of the Mongol people, armies of horse archers with no more baggage than a reserve of spare horses. As a result, they could move fast and strike hard before the enemy had any chance to do anything about it, as well as engage in infamous maneuvers such as the Mongol fake retreat.
And in today’s world, we’re actually looking for exactly the same things, at least in concept. Business practice today is full of “lean” methodologies and “agile” practices – the logic being that, in a world that moves and changes so fast, we have to be constantly learning, adapting, ready to move and react. Genghis Khan was a master at this, even as he amassed such a huge empire, and it is an important reminder to us that we should be looking to stay agile and reactive in our own lives, too.
That, then, just about wraps up our consideration of the life and legacy of Genghis Khan…I do hope you’ve enjoyed it and got something useful from it. I’ve got plans for some similar posts as part of a “Famous People in History” series – so if you liked this, give it a like or a share, and let me know what famous people in history you would like me cover in the comments below!
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.