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Three Agile Business Lessons from Genghis Khan

Happy August, readers! This month is all about working smarter here at Mindjet, so to kick things off, we’ve got a question for you.

What do Genghis Khan, leader of the world’s largest empire, and agile business have in common? Not much, on the surface. But dig a little deeper, and there’s a lot we could learn about agility and collaboration from this commander of realms. Here at Mindjet HQ, he’s even got his own mural (shown above) as part of a series on great collaborations throughout history.

And so, in keeping with last week’s spirit of reading broadly, deeply, and often, here are three lessons borrowed straight from the Great Khan himself, as applicable today as they were 800 years ago.

He (or She) Who Is Agile, Rules the World

From humble beginnings on the Mongolian steppe, the son of a lesser clan who spent much of his early life in desperate poverty, Genghis Khan rose to build the largest empire in history. He conquered some of the world’s greatest civilizations in a matter of years, and his influence continues to affect the course of human events even now (example: forks, trousers, and diplomatic immunity were all brought to the West, directly or indirectly, by the Great Khan).

How did Genghis Khan manage to accomplish so much in a single lifetime? By being – wait for it – agile. Literally. As nomads of the steppe, the Mongolians had to be agile in order to survive. They were expert horsemen (and -women) and incredibly nimble hunters. Genghis Khan adapted these agile, extremely effective hunting techniques to warfare, building a highly mobile army that was fast, efficient, and could execute and iterate on a dime. The established armies of Central Asia, Persia, China, and so forth were no match for Mongolian agility, and one by one, the Great Khan conquered them all. The stakes are (hopefully) lower in business than in warfare, but the lesson remains the same: be agile, or be destroyed.

Build Bridges Wherever You Go

Everywhere they went, the Mongolians erected bridges. Though designed to make warfare faster and easier (and oh, how they succeeded), they also wound up being one of Genghis Khan’s most far-reaching achievements, shaping the course of history in many crucial and unanticipated ways. As Mongol warriors flowed across these bridges to grow and consolidate their empire, so followed an explosion of commerce, free trade, and cultural cross-pollination in their (admittedly bloody) wake.

These newly opened lines of commerce and communication led to a great flowering of civilization across Eurasia, which is pretty ironic when you consider that it was brought about by a bunch of seemingly un-cosmopolitan nomads. Among the more pivotal trade routes unified by the Mongols? The Silk Road (perhaps you’ve heard of it). If Genghis Khan could build a unified trade route across the Eurasian land mass, no doubt you can build a few bridges between marketing and engineering, product and sales, or finance and HR.

Let the Best Ideas Win the Day

Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty killer, Genghis Khan was actually a pretty enlightened ruler for his time. Sure, he brutally crushed all who opposed him, but for the many newly minted citizens of the Mongol empire, life was pretty good. While the Europeans were waging prolonged, bloody Crusades against heretics and non-believers, the Great Khan established religious freedom, abolished torture, dismantled systems of aristocratic privilege, and established the rule of law.

Pragmatism and meritocracy were prominent aspects of Genghis Khan’s rule. Rather than impose their own traditions on the people they conquered, the Mongols were adept at combining systems and ideas from everywhere (largely in thanks to all the bridges they built!). They drew equally and cross-culturally from artisans, merchants, administrators, and religious leaders to address the challenges of their empire. When they found what worked best, they implemented it everywhere. Surely there’s a lesson in there about taking a pragmatic, rather than an ideological, approach to solving problems, and letting the best ideas rise to the top, no matter where they come from.

If this all sounds strangely familiar, it should. In a world where we can, for better or for worse, draw so many parallels between waging business and waging war, we would do well to remember the Great Khan’s agile, enlightened example when building our own empires. Minus the killing part, of course.

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