Who Gains? Part 2: How Genghis Khan Built Morale and Conquered the World

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In my previous article, Who Gains? A Guide to Better Understanding Motivations, I discussed the following:

While researching how morale impacts organizational outcomes, I came across possibly one of the greatest leaders in history, Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol Empire and established the foundation for what would become the largest contiguous empire in history. Apart from being a strategic military leader, he also pioneered a few key policies that boosted morale and loyalty, which I found to be applicable to management.

1. Sharing the spoils with his troops

Prior to Genghis Khan, Mongol tribal leaders typically kept all the war spoils for themselves or shared them with aristocrats. In theory, all the gains from the conquests belonged to the tribe at large, but in practice the aristocrats and tribal leaders enjoyed them the most. However, Genghis Khan recognized that his troops were the ones who were risking their lives fighting on the front lines, and all the spoils were really the fruits of their labor. As a result, he opted instead to share all the spoils with his troops and also reserved an amount for the families of those who died in combat.

Modern-day organizations are similar. I’ve worked with multiple banks where the business teams devise project ideas which they then direct their tech teams to implement. A common scenario is that the business team ends up taking all the credit for the project’s business success, while the tech teams are held accountable for any mishaps that occur during implementation. Unfortunately, because the two sides do not share a common goal, when projects are delayed, the two end up pointing fingers at each other. Instead of optimizing conditions to accomplish their common goal, they each prioritize their own needs. That is why we’ve seen so many large banks acquire fintech companies — they’re rarely able to develop quality software in-house.

Similarly, some people continuously press others to “do things for the greater good” and “win as a team.” While commendable at a glance, such advice is reminiscent of the quote from Animal Farm that “All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Similarly, “everyone wins, but some win more than others.” Ideally, we strive for equity where the benefits received correspond to the risks and effort taken by each group. In the spirit of equity, Genghis Khan ensured that the people in the front lines had the most to gain from their wins, and this in turn created incentives for his team to fight harder for the spoils. Modern-day leaders would do well to apply the same principles.

2. Standing up for his troops against his peers and superiors

Genghis Khan’s policy of sharing spoils with his troops caused a big rift with his adopted brothers and uncles, who at that time had bigger militaries and were in some ways higher-ranked. It didn’t take long for them to turn against Genghis Khan because aristocrats complained that they were not receiving any share from the conquests. In response, Genghis Khan fought a war against his uncle (effectively his boss) and brothers, whom he defeated, and resumed his path of uniting Mongolia.

In corporate America, much has been discussed about managing up: do what you can to make your boss’s life easier. In fact, many management or career books advise you to prioritize managing upwards and sideways (your peers) over managing down. They reason that your manager and your peers have much more influence on your career than your reports.

While that may be true in many cases, especially in the short run, studies have shown that instead of worrying about pleasing their bosses, managers should focus on helping their teams, which will lead to a much more motivated and productive organization. I believe that the job of the manager is to serve their employees, because managers are nothing without individual contributors who are doing the actual work. As Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, noted in High Output Management, the output of the manager is the output of their organization.

While I am not at all advocating that you start a war with your boss like Genghis Khan did — that would be career suicide — the principle of standing up for your people still holds. While prioritizing your troops might lead you to feel like you’re holding your career back in the short run, it will help you build morale and loyalty, which in turn allows your team to deliver better products, business outcomes, and company impact. This ensures that the organization you supervise is healthy over the long run. Genghis Khan was willing to go to war with his former king over this policy — how many of us are willing to go to war with our bosses over what is right for our reports?

3. Promoting leaders based on merit, not birthright

Genghis Khan organized his military into 10-person units, which were then aggregated into 100-person units, 1,000-person units, and 10,000-person units. A new policy that he introduced was that each of the unit leaders (10, 100, 1,000, or 10,000) had to have been soldiers who had proven themselves capable in war in their previously smaller roles. There were literally no “armchair generals” — to be a 10,000-person unit leader, you had to have a successful track record as a 1,000-person unit leader. Similarly, to be a 10-person unit leader, you had to have been a successful frontline soldier. Furthermore, even 10,000-person unit leaders are required to do some menial tasks alongside the frontline soldiers.

Genghis Khan believed that a leader must truly understand what their team does in order to command them. In the industry, we see many companies in which the decision maker has no prior experience with the work their team has done. For example, some companies “promote” strong engineers into project managers, thus moving them away from their core strengths. Others may even transition project managers (with no technical experience) directly into VPs of engineering. Companies where decision makers were not former builders tend to build subpar products for users because they have no empathy for their teams.

Needless to say, there are many factors that contributed to Genghis Khan’s historic success. One of which was that he had the willingness to change the generations-long established policies to ensure that his troops were well incentivized and could share their successes. This was a key reason not only for why they were better trained with higher morale than others, but also for why Khan’s former enemies were so willing to join and follow him to the end of the world after defeat. As a leader, sharing the fruits of your team’s labor with your team, having their back even under pressure from above, and establishing sub-team leaders that truly empathize with individual contributors will go a long way in building a successful organization.

For more musings on tech culture, organization building, and management, follow me on Twitter @kenk616.

Product-minded Engineering Leader. Organization & Cultural Builder. Traveler. Martial Artist (Muay Thai & Pekiti Tirsia Kali).

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