Yearly Focus

Genghis Khan – Exemplar Review

This year I picked Genghis Khan as my exemplar since the theme I was studying was strategy and he is widely noted as one of the best military strategists.

I write these reviews following a review template to help me get the most out of the process of having an exemplar. Below is my entry for Genghis Khan.

What did Genghis Khan achieve?

He unified a large number of nomadic people on the Mongolian steppe and led the expansion of that kingdom until it became the largest contiguous land empire in history.

Why did he care about that?

I haven’t gotten any clarity into that during my study this year. It seems revenge and ambition played a role, but I also get the feeling that continual growth was just something that kept him busy and his people focused on a task. Perhaps that is all there is to it – he grew up in a world of conquering and he continued to conquer, just more successfully than anyone else.

How did he think about the world differently than his contemporaries?

Three things stand out to me.

  1. Despite his reputation as a genocidal barbarian, it seems he was more inclusive of welcoming in foreigners to his empire than most of his contemporaries. He was also quite welcoming across class lines. He was able to expand his kingdom because he kept acquiring people, leaders and military from the places the conquered. Sure, he also killed a lot of them, specifically anyone that wouldn’t swear loyalty to him or who had personally offended him, but I have to give him some credit for being more open minded that many of his contemporaries.
  2. He focused on results over actions and took a very first principles approach to warfare. He was willing to fight in a way no one else was, often using retreats as a strategic move. His technique changed over time though, where at one point he focused his army on winning in open fields using their strengths on horses, he later became an expert at siege warfare, surrounding fortified towns and defeating them in creative and brutal ways. His army is said to have once redirected a river into a fortified city in order to take it over. That flexibility and focus on results is likely the root cause of why he was able to succeed at such different scales as tribal battles and then continent scale expansion. Anyone too fixed in their approach might have done well at one, but not the other.
  3. Another point he was unique was how organized and disciplined he forced his army to be. The Mongols are often portrayed as brutal hordes descending chaotically on a peaceful city, but that is likely a) an image they created to their strategic advantage and b) a image propagated by enemies of the present day Mongolians in order to undermine their accomplishments. One example of this is that he had a rule that they must completely defeat a city before any looting could take place, and the penalty for breaking the rule was death. This stands in contrast to how wars were typically fought by his contemporaries where looting was a main driver and often started as soon as possible, to the detriment of the continued success.

What are a few of Genghis Khan’s behaviors that helped him?

This one is harder for me because I haven’t come across very specific or granular action about his personal behaviors. I do get the impression from reading that he was tough as nails though, which is something I respect as an ultramarathon runner. His people, traditionally nomadic, lived spartan lives without many material possessions despite occupying a terrain that suffered hostile winters and sometimes scorching summers. There are stories of his army riding impossible distances in relatively short amounts of time, which some suspect required the army to sleep while riding. That is pretty cool in my book.

What are some of the decisions he made that contributed to his success?

Making Jebe, a former enemy, a general in his army was an amazing decision that contributed to the success of the empire.

If the stories are true – which is hard to know given the lack of written records and amount of apocryphal storytelling that seems to swirl around the accounts of this figure – Jebe was an enemy general who shot Khan in the neck with an arrow during a battle. When the battle was over, Genghis asked the conquered army who had fired the shot and Jebe confessed to it and said he would serve Khan if he was allowed to live. He was and went on to be a successful general of calvary units in a few important campaigns.

Though an ancient story, this tale has modern day parallels. Business leaders periodically get the chance to cross paths with those they once battled against as competitors. I’ve, in fact, done so before with great results.

What was one thing about the Genghis Khan’s life journey that is encouraging to me?

I am encouraged by his defiance of giants like the Jin Dynasty, the Khwarazmian Empire and the Kievan Rus’ in present day Northern and Eastern Europe.

I love an underdog story and it seems everyone repeatedly made the mistake of underestimating Khan, to their later regret.

What is one thing about Genghis Khan’s life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?

The 9 million square miles Khan controlled is quite a bit more than the 0.0003 I own. Though I do benefit from some amenities not even the richest man ever had access to, like gigabit internet.

What did he believe about the world that I have already reflected on?

Genghis Khan is probably the figure I’ve studied whose worldview is the least like my own. This isn’t surprising given the large distance in time and space between our upbringings, but is relevant nonetheless. Conquering isn’t really something I think about. While I can’t immediately pinpoint any individual beliefs of his that have really reached out to me, his overall philosophy of continually questioning norms and expanding rapidly is interesting.

What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?

It doesn’t seem like he succession planned at all, and ultimately his empire grew for only one generation after him, began fracturing after two generations and seems to have mostly dissolved into other things within 150 years. Easy come, easy go.

What other cool facts did I learn about Genghis Khan

In learning about some of the details of his organizational structure, he did a few really cool things in order to build a great army while appeasing those already in power. He famously ignored birth class in promoting leaders, instead basing position on skill, which stands in contrast to norms. He didn’t completely ignore the ruling class of the lands he conquered though, creating development paths for the children of existing rulers. Those that had skill and worked hard, could obtain positions of leadership, and those that didn’t seem to have been given nominal positions which kept them happy enough to avoid rebellion. Quite tactically brilliant.