Book of the Week

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Title: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan

Author: John Man

Published in 2009, The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, combines history and leadership theory. I truly enjoy all of John Man’s books. He writes on history with a passion and makes it come to life for me.

I found this book very easy to read and could fully visualise the young Genghis Khan creating history riding through the grasslands of Mongolia to Bulgaria and Korea. Genghis Khan by Man’s description was not only a man of integrity but also charismatic. He is a leader with a vision and a mission, the vision being to have Mongols rule the world and his mission was to attain it at all costs. Man does point out that though his vision was a little  insane , we have to understand that in his times, there were no cartographers and Genghis Khan had no idea how big the world was. Given that context, he went as far as he could go.

Man has used translations of what has been passed down of Genghis Khan’s words to bring out what a great leader Genghis Khan was. This is what the grand Khan wrote with the wealth of China at his feet in a letter to inviting his Daoist spiritual guide to his court.

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers…

Man shows us how Genghis Khan actually bears out the truth of what he expressed in this letter. A sable coat was gifted to his mother by his in-laws when he married at sixteen. He or his mother never wore it. Instead, he used it as an asset to negotiate with another tribal leader. He lived frugally in tents with his herdsmen and raged through the grasslands to create an empire which lasted for almost a century as opposed to the legendary Qin Shi Huang Di whose dynasty lasted only from 221 to 206 BC and who bequeathed the world a grand mausoleum for himself in the guise of Terracotta warriors.

Genghis Khan wanted to be buried in secret for the sake of his dreams. He was in the process of subjugating the Tanguts. His team moved on to build on his vision and create the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1234 AD to 1368 AD. Genghis himself died in 1227AD. His vision was fulfilled by others in his clan who regarded him as someone who had divine rights to unite them and lead them. He was an influential leader who cared for his people and unified those under him.  Man sums it up by writing Genghis Khan had

Humility and tolerance together: two surprising traits in a world conquerer notorious for his power and brutality. 

Genghis was brutal, Man explains, not because he found pleasure in senseless violence but to create an empire. The Tangut culture,among others, and its script were wiped out only because they stood in the way of his dream of unified world empire under the Mongols. His vision was more important to him than lives of evanescent humankind.

Man also highlights how Genghis Khan always valued talent beyond race. He was a multi national in his outlook as was his grandson Kublai, in whose reign Marco Polo thrived. Many talented foreigners did join the Mongols as they slashed through the steppes, unstoppable, unbeatable. He tried to integrate the nomadic tribes around the Mongols and to create a unified script by borrowing from the Uighurs. Genghis Khan lent an ear not only to good advise from his companions but also from the women of his family, mother and wives. He is said to be a visionary leader who towers above his times, an extraordinary leader. But is he a good one?

Is a good leader allowed to kill to attain his vision? Then we would have to justify Mustafa Mond (Brave New World) and Big Brother( 1984).

Where does the quest for power lead us? Does the end ever justify the means? Isn’t how you do the thing more important than the end in itself? Should good leadership not have to do with that?

Book of the week

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Title: The Travels of Marco Polo
Author: Rusticello da Pisa

The Travels of Marco Polo always cheers me up!

Marco Polo related his experiences between 1276 and 1290 to his prison buddy, Rusticello da Pisa. The prisoners of war collaborated and came up with this fantastic book. It was written in langues d’oil, a language that is no longer in use. My edition is a reprint of the translation by William Marsden in the eighteenth century.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo’s father, Niccolo, and uncle, Maffeo, successful traders, were invited by an envoy of the Mongols and made a trip to the East to meet the Grand Khan. They returned to Venice after seventeen years of adventuring to pick up some holy oil and give the Pope a letter from the Grand Khan. The Grand Khan, being Kublai Khan, desired to introduce Christianity into China. The Khan wanted the Pope to send a hundred representatives to support the spread of Christianity.

The two brothers had to wait a long time as the Pope had died and it took time for the new Pope to come to power. That was when they met Marco Polo the first time for Niccolo had left behind a pregnant wife who gave birth and died in the interim.Marco had been brought up by his uncle to be a trader. Niccolo and Maffeo took Marco with them for the next set of adventures and it is from Marco’s recall that this book was created. He wrote this book most likely for the trading community. However, what has come down to us in the translation is a very poetic and interesting account of the East. The description of Shandu in this book inspired Coleridge to write Kubla Khan, one of the most enchanting poems I have ever read. Perhaps, he read the same translation as I did, the one by William Marsden.

Most of the world regard Genghis and Kublai Khan as the worst kind of tyrannic rulers. However, in Marco Polo’s narration, the Grand Khan comes across as a competent ruler who provided security to his subjects. Trade prospered. It was Kublai Khan who popularised paper currency in China. Marco mentions it in his book.

Marco worked for the Grand Khan as an envoy for a number of years. The book is about his travel to and from China to the surrounding provinces and then his return to Europe. It took the party three years to reach China with the holy oil and gifts. The new pope had sent two representatives instead of one hundred. The two monks had absconded during the journey. The Grand Khan did not penalise them for not getting the hundred men but expressed happiness on seeing his old friends and Marco.

The thing that I really like is the open mindset of Marco Polo. He has no preconceived notions and takes people as they come. His father, uncle and he were multi-lingual. They could pick up languages easily. They all picked up tartaric, the language spoken by Kublai Khan, even before they met him. The Polos truly embodied the spirit of a one world society. They could take the best from every culture and survive under all circumstances. They knew no borders where trade was concerned.

The authenticity of Marco’s rendition has often been questioned by erudite scholars. Marco has been represented as a charlatan who made up a tall tale. However, what I do see in the story is an open-minded, large-hearted adventurer who did not acknowledge pre-conceived biases of the medieval world, rose above all pettinesses and recorded a fantastic travelogue with the collaboration of a friend. The retelling is of his own personalised experiences.

That the book has survived seven centuries of intellectuals and is still regarded as worthy of debate makes it an eternal classic in my perspective. Marco Polo’s travelogue has an infectious spirit of optimism and a one world outlook beyond borders.

The travels of Marco Polo helps me dream, imagine and create a fantastic world of my own…