Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan

Have you ever been asked who your hero is?

For me, it’s Genghis Khan. Sounds crazy, I know. But hear me out.

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Most of what we know in the West about Genghis Khan is that he was a brutal warlord. He and the Mongols were a bloodthirsty horde. His conquests were the start of the largest empire known to man. However, most of the stories we have about Genghis Khan was written by his enemies. Of course, they wrote negative things about him. Genghis Khan encouraged the propaganda because he needed fear on his side. His army was many times smaller than his enemies.

The Mongols didn’t have written language until Genghis Khan. He had the Mongol script developed. What Mongols did write down they kept secret, which is why we don’t know much from their point of view. All that changed when the Secret History was discovered.

Genghis Khan was the first ruler to use paper money. He created the first Pony Express postal service. When Thomas Jefferson added freedom of religion to the United States Constitution, it was inspired by Genghis Khan whose own empire was open to people of all religious backgrounds.

Genghis Khan had ingenuity. He was creative, tenacious, and had an indomitable spirit. All are factors that I believe are important. It doesn’t matter if you are down on your luck at work or in life if you have those characteristics. I believe each of those can be learned, practiced, and formed into a habit.

Genghis Khan was far from perfect but he didn’t rise to be the leader of the Mongols by being purely ruthless.

6 Leadership Lessons from Genghis Khan


Part of how Genghis Khan rose to be the top Mongol leader was because he knew how to network. When Genghis Khan first began his rise out of poverty, Mongolia was composed of different steppe tribes. The group that followed Genghis was called the Mongols and that is how the country eventually got its name.

One of the first networking efforts he made was with Jamukha. Juamukha was a childhood friend of Genghis. They were so close they became blood brothers. When Jaumukha grew up, he became a leader of a well-off tribe. Genghis Khan worked a deal with Jamukha to use his army to help rescue his wife, Borte after she was captured by a rival tribe.

Unfortunately, once Genghis Khan started having real power on the steppe, he and Jamukha became arch rivals. After many battles, Genghis Khan defeated Jamukha. Genghis Khan was willing to offer Jamukha forgiveness but Jamukha refused, forcing Genghis to execute him, his blood brother.

What we can learn from this is the power of networking. Without Jamukha’s help in the beginning of their friendship, Genghis Khan would have never been able to rescue his wife. However, we also need to recognize when a relationship has gone sour. Even when we try to keep a relationship in tack, it’s not always possible.

Value Skill over Title

Genghis Khan promoted people based on merit and skill, not family blood. Genghis didn’t care if the people he conquered or those who flocked to him weren’t Mongolian. He valued people based on their skill for fighting, writing, or leading and empowered them accordingly.

When Genghis conquered a city, he sought out carpenters, metalsmiths, weavers, and those who could write. He assimilated them into the Mongol empire. These people were rarely the royal family.

Empower People Who No One Else Does

Genghis Khan empowered women at a time when most had none.

His daughters ruled the conquered cities left behind. They had soldiers of their own and rode into battle with their father. When they conquered a city, Genghis would send his daughters in to find the people of skill to bring into the empire.

When Genghis Khan left a city to start the next campaign, he left a daughter behind to govern the conquered area. He would marry his daughter to the prince of the area. Then he would strip the prince of all his power and bring him along on the campaign. This left his daughter without any problems enforcing her rule. By 1226 it was the Mongol queens who ruled the Silk Road.

Seek out Advice

Genghis Khan sought out counsel from people of all backgrounds and views but in the end, he made his own decisions. He sought counsel with the religious leaders of an area because they knew the local landscape and political climate. Genghis knew if he could get on their side he would have support in the region after he left.

One time Genghis met with a Taoist monk, known as the Man of the Mountain, who visited him in Mongolia. The monk was a prominent man in his region and had advised kings before. The monk told Genghis Khan how he should abstain from impure food, hunting, and women. Genghis politely but firmly told the monk that Mongols ride and hunt before they can walk and that they weren’t going to change that now. Genghis Khan stuck to his guns, he didn’t immediately start doubting himself.

The monk left thinking he had bestowed great wisdom on the Khan and might even convert him to Taoism. Genghis, on the other hand, gained the monk’s support, meaning he would keep his stronghold in the area of China he conquered.


Great Leaders Create Leaders

I read a quote once that great leaders create leaders. Genghis Khan did that. He didn’t try to conquer everyone himself, although he did lead many campaigns. He gave missions to his sons, hoping they would become the leaders he wanted them to be.


One time, he gave a mission to his grandson to take out an enemy general and his army. The grandson used all the teachings of warfare that Genghis had taught him but was still defeated. The enemy general had been studying the Mongol ways. It was the first Mongol defeat since Genghis started his conquest out of the Mongolian steppe.

Instead of becoming angry at his grandson and chastising him for what he did wrong, Genghis provided constructive feedback. He pointed out the mistakes as a lesson so he would never make them again.

I hope to be this type of leader. One that lifts others up and gives them a chance even if means they don’t make it. And if they don’t, I hope to be there for them with continued guidance instead of mockery.

Think Innovatively

Genghis Khan was an innovative thinker. Most people (in the USA) know Genghis Khan for his barbarian horde. However, his goal was not to conquer people for the sake of it but to build up vast trading networks. He knew for his empire to survive, it had to continue building up.

He sent out a large caravan to a Muslim Shah in what is now part of Afghanistan to start trading. Unfortunately, the governor of the area raided the caravan, killing everyone except for one person who managed to escape. This single action drove Genghis Khan into Afghanistan.

Sometimes, the way to be the best is to know your strengths and weaknesses. Delegate tasks that you are not strong in or outsource. You can’t always do everything yourself but be prepared for it if that time comes.

Genghis Khan tried to trade with Muslim tribes for goods that the Mongol nation didn’t have. Unfortunately, when they killed his people he was forced to act on behalf of his nation.


I encourage you to read about past leaders in history. We can learn from the past so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future. Hence why we perform Lessons Learned in the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge).

Genghis Khan wasn’t perfect but he was a great leader. We can learn from his mistakes and his achievements to make ourselves better leaders today.


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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire

Genghis Khan’s Quest for God


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