Sunday, 15 April 2012

What Khan You See?

A specially commissioned bronze sculpture of Genghis Kahn, by artist Dashi Namdako, has been unveiled in central London.  It has been created to celebrate the 850th anniversary since Genghis Kahn’s birth and will be located at Marble Arch until September. 

Despite London’s vibrant Asian community, it seems an unusual piece to have specifically created.  It shows the great warlord in a contemplative pose astride a remarkable horse (it has a mane that can rival Medusa’s coiffure).  Having spent many years in Asia, I have a genuine interest in Genghis Khan and the impact he has had on the world.  It is impossible to deny his territorial achievements (he ultimately controlled four times the land mass of Alexander the Great’s empire) but he was not “all good”.  Many consider him a psychopath; he reputedly caused the death of 40 million people, there were certainly a large number of bones testifying to the slaughter of his enemies by the time he bequeathed the empire to his son.  There is some striking research from the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Global Ecology which seems to prove that carbon levels plummeted during the time of his empire building and destruction, presumably because only very few people were left alive and sufficiently fit to cultivate land and hence trees established themselves in the place of crops. Researchers estimate nearly 700 million tons of carbon were removed from the atmosphere during the period.

 I can never decide whether Genghis Khan was a ruthless bully who would have benefitted from anger management coaching or if he is an early exemplar of necessary traits for today’s great leaders.  Like all of us, I suspect he displayed a combination of attributes, some good some bad.  He was certainly ruthless, especially in the suppression of his enemies – when Samarkand fell he ordered the inhabitants to evacuate the citadel and assemble on a plain outside the city, where they were all killed and pyramids of severed heads erected as a symbol of his victory.  Genghis Khan stated that

“the greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters”

(you might be interested to know that genetic research seems to prove that Genghis Khan was very good at the latter: he has been identified by Dr Bryan Sykes (the acclaimed Oxford geneticists) as “the most successful alpha male in human history” with over 16 million people able to trace their genetic roots back to him )

More acceptable words than “ruthless” and “brutal” that also apply to Genghis Khan are “tenacity” and “resilience”, both valuable attributes for any leader.  He was certainly tough and determined – his father was poisoned when he was nine, leaving the family destitute. Ghengis (or Temüjin as he was originally called) looked after his mother and four siblings and from nothing became a formidable leader controlling the largest empire attained by any man.  His success can be credited to a combination of initiative, intelligence and skill.  Once he began leading others, he was surprisingly open-minded, especially in respect of religious tolerance and cultural diversity.  He clearly learned how to encourage others to support him in achieving his aims and he inspired immense loyalty.  He was focused and always attuned to his objectives.  As well as protecting his family and creating peace and prosperity across a substantial global region (22% of the earth’s landmass), he desired to establish a lasting legacy, and famously said:

“If my body dies, let my body die, but do not let my country die.”

All of the traits listed in bold above would sit comfortably in a typical inventory from a modern corporate defining the attributes desired in a CEO or other top leader. By way of comparison, here are the top five qualities, as defined by Adam Bryant, a leading business columnist for the New York Times, based on his analysis of 70 top leaders for his book “Corner Office”:

1.       Passionate Curiosity

2.       Battle Hardened Confidence

3.       Team Smarts (meaning that they have good peripheral vision for sensing how people react to one another, as well as being able to work well with people themselves)

4.       A Simple Mindset

5.       Fearlessness

If you want to read more, here is a link to a New York Times article on the subject: 

All five of the above would suit Genghis Khan.  Indeed the warlord’s approach has been proposed as a framework for modern business, in a book entitled, “Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way”, by former dentist Michael Young, (the book won the Diagram prize in 2011 for best, most unusual titled book).  In case you don’t have a copy, I am happy to explain that it offers advice to dentists on how to build a dentistry empire in the manner of the warlord and includes chapters on team building, managing conflict and “planning for disaster”.

Clearly, your opinion of Genghis Khan is based on your own perceptions and values; which probably you will have established during your formative years.  What seems awful or brutal to us now was perhaps viewed as acceptable in a different era.  It is amazing the impact learning can have on how we perceive things.  A BBC Horizon programme admirably demonstrates the impact that learning, especially the acquisition of language, on how we view things.  The following clip is extraordinary on many levels:

Language is one of Man’s most extraordinary achievements – longer lasting and more impactful than empires.  However, I doubt if Samuel Taylor Coleridge was aware, when he wrote about Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, that Asian folklore claims that Genghis Khan (whom Kublai recognized as originator of the Dynesty he headed in China) was buried under a river, which was diverted for this purpose, to make his resting place a secret and mystical spot.  He certainly would not have been aware of the Genghis Khan’s impact on forestation and his counteracting the impact of man’s carbon footprint.  “Kubla Khan” despite being unfinished, due to the Man from Porlock’s unwonted arrival, is still a wonderful piece of evocative poetry that deserves celebration:

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting blog post from you!

    I've just listened to a podcast of the BBC's 'The Bottom Line' on Ruthlessness and it touches on some really interesting perceptions of what it is, and whether you need to be ruthless to get ahead. Worth a listen: