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Review: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan


Title: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan
Author: John Man
Publisher: Bantam Press
Reviewer: John Pope

John Man has written one of the most interesting books on leadership and management that I have ever read. He uses Genghis Khan as an example of a truly great leader and tells the story of his spectacular rise to power and his domination of much of Asia. John is exceptionally knowledgeable about Genghis, has travelled widely in the lands he conquered and studied the histories of the time. As a result he paints a picture of a leader and analyse his traits and the circumstances which made him successful.

A modern equivalent would be founding a mighty industrial empire, controlled by one man. This was possible, though on a lesser scale, in the 19th Century. Vanderbilt and Rockefeller in the United States established industrial empires which though not as Continent-dominating as Genghis’s were still massive by the standards of the day. Those industrial empires became so powerful that it provoked anti-trust legislation which rules on unfair trading, monopolies, market dominance and price-fixing have made it almost impossible for any one person to gain an equivalent commercial power.

It is clear that the immense power wielded by an individual at the head of an organization can bring out the worst aspects of human nature eventually bring that organisation down; several ‘media barons’ have fallen this way in recent years. Genghis’ achievement was to build an empire which lasted over 150 years after his death and although there are a few business corporations which have their roots hundreds of years ago none have been so dominant on such a scale, nor led so dramatically.

Vanderbilt and Rockefeller in the United States established industrial empires which though not as Continent-dominating as Genghis’s were still massive by the standards of the day.

The life of Genghis is well documented considering the time. John Man analyses episodes and his methods and then relates them to the theories of leadership, particularly of Goleman Boyatzis and the concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) to show how highly Genghis rates. He shows how his approach gained him the tremendous power which he attracted, used, and passed down to his grandson Kublai-Khan. He scores Genghis highly on 15 out of Goleman’s 18 competencies and on that assessment ranks him as a leadership genius. He identifies some 19 principles of the behaviour of the great leader, which he terms ‘leadership secrets’.

I have had the fortune to work closely with or for some outstanding leaders in business and other professions, as well as those who were good but not outstanding. I have been in a good position to consider their competencies in relation to my own preferred framework of traits of leaders. Few of those whom I knew scored very highly in more than 4 or 5 of those traits. Of course, none of them achieved world domination or even industry or business domination. That is probably just as well as we no longer like the idea of the ‘all powerful’ leader in an organization in any aspect of our modern life and we are particularly suspicious of ‘leader-worship’.

I found this book fascinating to read and an interesting study of the way in which a great leader can rise from very humble beginnings, take advantage of turmoil and chaotic circumstances to achieve immense power and authority. John Man’s analysis of Genghis’ character and competencies would be valuable to a senior manager who wished to build a great commercial empire. Thankfully, many of the Genghis methods, even when watered down, are no longer tolerated in the civilised world, though there are some states in which those methods seem to be being applied.

While new managers may find this book interesting I think it is likely to be of greater value to those who have had several years experience at more senior levels and can relate to the ‘secrets’.

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