Great Leaders Reward Merit

Life as a nomad on the steppes of Central Asia must have been grim in the year 1200.  

The climate is cold and dry.  You would spend everyday seeking grass for your animals to eat.  You hoped another tribe didn’t destroy your tribe and take your children as slaves.

Your tribe was everything.  They protected you, and helped you acquire resources for survival.  

That is the world into which Temüjin was born.  His father was chief of the ruling clan of the Mongols, but when his father was killed by a rival clan, Temüjin’s family was ostracized and he himself became a slave. 

He escaped, and rebuilt a clan.  But when he was elected head of a tribe, he departed from tradition.  He promoted leaders based on merit and loyalty, not only on blood.  Eventually he became head of all Mongol clans and became Genghis Khan.  

Temüjin means “blacksmith”.* The name fits: he was able to forge an empire from his slave beginnings.  He enjoyed extraordinary loyalty from his followers, and together they built an empire stretching from the Pacific ocean to Southern Europe.  

Genghis Khan is not the only leader to create a meritocracy.  But it is far too uncommon.  Everyone claims to hire and promote based on merit, but they don’t.  We hire people who look and act like ourselves. A 2012 study** indicated that we hire by homophily: we hire people who share our interests, characteristics, and background.  

My book uses Genghis Khan as an example more than for once, because the Mongols built an incredible institution, the largest contiguous empire in world history.  Note: I am not pro-genocide.  But we can learn from those who are, just as we can from others.

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*Glasse, Cyril; Smith, Huston (January 2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-7591-0190-6.

**Rivera, L. A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional service firms. American sociological review77(6), 999-1022.

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