The Genghis Khan school of business management

By Ciaran Ryan

The name Genghis Khan evokes images of bloodlust, the likes of which this world has seldom seen. Entire cities were wiped out by his marauding soldiers as they swept from the steppes of Mongolia, across the Volga River to Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 1100s and 1200s.

Millions died under the sword of his men, yet the positive aspects of Genghis Khan’s military conquests are often overlooked: he unified most of Asia under a single political code and opened up the Silk Road for trade and commerce, thus ushering in a new age of enlightenment. He was tolerant of all religions and applied the Mongolian civil code – the Yassa – equally to all subjects. Conquered soldiers were generally integrated into his own forces, and orphaned children were adopted by Mongolian families. He placed absolute trust in his generals, who were given wide autonomy in their military campaigns.

Genghis Khan was able to summon an army of 100,000 men at a few days’ notice. The battalions were divided into units of 10, making up larger battalions of 100 men, and then 1,000, each smaller unit headed by an officer responsible for the welfare and training of his men. Khan was able to defeat much larger armies due to the speed of his attack, and the ability of these small military units to break off and rejoin the larger army depending on the military tactics being deployed. Though his soldiers were highly trained in horsemanship, archery and military tactics, they were not subject to the kind of demeaning military discipline evident in the enemy armies.

Genghis Khan was without doubt one of history’s most brutal warlords, but he was also a military strategists and organiser without equal. His empire extended across half of the known world. One of his rules was quite stunningly brutal: never make peace with an enemy before they have submitted. It seems perhaps strange that we should invoke the Great Khan for lessons in organisation, but hang in there a moment.

He was indeed a great organiser, so what was it about his leadership style that made him so effective?

  • His ability to organise a huge army by breaking it up into manageable cells or units, for one thing. No executive can comfortably manage more than 10 people. Actually, the ideal number is about six. This tells us something about the importance of middle management. The CEO should therefore interact with no more than six line managers. More than this and the traffic becomes overwhelming.
  • Organisational structures are generally creations born of habit. Genghis Khan tore up the old school manual on military formations. He realised that organisations are living, breathing units. They are not organograms with boxes and lines. If the organisation is a living, breathing community of individuals aligned for the purpose of producing something valuable, it needs blood to flow and oxygen to enter the lungs. That being the case, don’t try to cut off the arms or attach the legs to the shoulders. Work out the organisational flow so as to remove any impediment to the blood and oxygen getting to where they need to go. Despite what the change gurus say, the organisation is not a carcass to be hacked and cauterised every time someone has a brighter idea. It has a head, a heart, legs and liver, and each of these are vital to its survival. Just take the blockages out the way. (If you want to be turned off the change management industry, read The Witchdoctors by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two journalists with The Economist, who catalogued the industrial carnage inflicted by these agents of change). Genghis Khan listened patiently to the counsel of his generals and allowed them free rein to get the job done – so long as they got the job done.
  • Measure what everyone does. That means everyone. If you cannot put a number to what it is you are supposed to be doing, you do not know what you are supposed to be doing. “Well, how can I measure what I do? I handle customer complaints.” The answer to this is simple: how many customer complaints? 50? Good. Now how many of these were handled to the customer’s satisfaction? Measure everything. Every post, every day. Khan would hunt down his enemies, even if it took years. He never gave up on his goal of world conquest.
  • These statistics are the signposts of productivity. Log them on a graph, become concerned when the graph is dropping and take remedial action fast. Train or re-train your employees. Find out what is going on. In Khan’s book, his intelligence was excellent. He knew the size of armies he was about to confront, their strengths and weaknesses, and their logistical back-up. His scouts had it all measured before the battle took place. 
  • Reward the best producers through promotion or incentives. That seems rather obvious, but the point here is to push the best producers to the front as examples for the rest. Khan’s generals and officers were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
  • Look, don’t listen.  At a business seminar some years ago, one of the top property developers in South Africa imparted a useful piece of advice: when you go to a doctor with a cough and he recommends heart surgery, do you follow his recommendation or get another opinion? “Doctors, lawyers, all they should do is give you data. As an executive, you have to decide whether you need heart surgery. It is your life, your business, that is on the line. Your doctor is your junior, not your senior,” is what he said. The same goes for staff, even those technically more competent than you in their specific fields. Listen to what they have to say, but treat this as data. You can follow their recommendations, but only after you have independently verified their information as accurate.
  • Follow the rewards and penalties system. Reward the top producers, penalise the slackers. This is how life works anyway. The star producers get rewarded with a pay increases and bonuses, the slackers get nothing or they leave of their own accord. Social courtesy prevents us from saying anything that might upset the dilettantes you find in any organisation.
  • In truth, the success of any organisation is all about its people. Hire the right people, those with a proven history of getting the job done, and the rest is easy. In identifying the right candidates for the job, PCS goes the extra mile to establish their actual production record, based on measurable stats and milestones.

“In truth, the success of any organisation is all about its people. Hire the right people, those with a proven history of getting the job done, and the rest is easy. In identifying the right candidates for the job, PCS goes the extra mile to establish their actual production record, based on measurable stats and milestones.”