Great Leaders Feel Deserving

Many potential leaders never reach greatness because they feel they lack a mandate to lead.

Consider the case of Babur.

Babur ascended the throne of Fergana in in what is now Uzbekistan.   It was 1494, when Spain was claiming Caribbean islands, and Babur was only 12 years old.   At age 14 he led his forces to conquer Samarkand.   Soon after, he lost Fergana, his original holding.  Attempting to reconquer Fergana, he lost control of both.

Five years later, Babur tried to capture both again and failed.  He should have become a tent maker, or used his influence to amass wealth along the silk road trade, which passed through the region.   But he was the grandson of Timur (aka Tamerlane).   It was his right to lead.

So Babur turned his attention southward.

He invaded northern India, and built the Mughal empire.   It lasted until the British Raj in 1858.

The Muslim presence in India facilitated the export of Indian knowledge to Europe and the Arab world.   This included mathematics.

Mathematics made commerce and industry possible.   It made the technology revolution possible.

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A common cause of failure to launch is what psychologists call Imposter Syndrome.  Many people fear others will discover their inadequacies.   “Only a matter of time before people figure out I’m a fraud, that I’m only pretending to be talented.”   Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls) calls it the Fraud Police.

You probably are faking it a little.   Everyone is.   You must be courageous anyway.   We have to be comfortable with not being completely adequate, because no one is adequate.

Be like Babur.   Be a tenacious, entitled brat.   Just a little.   And eventually you will become the leader you need to be.   Then you’ll change the world.

Be Inclusive

(This post is part of my series on leadership lessons in history.)

The Roman empire promoted locals in conquered lands to trusted positions within the empire.  George Washington could have never become prime minister in England.  But in an earlier age he could have become a Roman senator (Peter Drucker has observed).

symbolsBecause of this practice, people felt like part of the empire, not subjects.  They were stakeholders rather than slaves.

The culture of inclusion was pervasive.  Centuries after the fall of Rome, many people still thought of themselves as Roman citizens.


Maybe you are governing a non-profit that employs mostly volunteers.  Maybe you are managing the integration of a corporate merger.  In either case, you must make people feel they are vital parts of the organization.  Help them to feel like citizens rather than hirelings.

Rome didn’t make people feel like citizens by claiming “people are our greatest asset.”  The empire had a policy of promoting the best, regardless of geography.

When I was a consultant in Asia, I observed that British companies were sometimes more successful that their French counterparts because they hired and promoted locals.  French firms often insisted that the smartest people were all French, so only French nationals could hold executive posts.   I was told that it was the heritage of the two colonial eras.  Top colonial posts were always occupied by French nationals, but locals could be promoted in British colonies.


Equating inclusion only with skin color is a missed opportunity.  A potentially greater strategy: promoting people from diverse geographies, unrelated corporate divisions, and unconventional educational backgrounds.

Kiss a Leper: Leadership and Self-Contrarianism

This post is part of my leadership lessons from history series.


Leadership requires courage of conviction. Working up to that strength requires overcoming your personal fears.


The Franciscans are a Catholic order that is impressive by many standards.  They somehow continually convince people (currently 14,000 friars) to give up every personal comfort.  They sponsor numerous universities.  They are respected by people of many faiths.  Their influence is felt around the world.

This global organization started with a leader who was a truly remarkable man.

Francis attracted followers simply through the force of his personal conviction.  He always did what he believed was right, which attracted people to his cause.

Francis felt that God told him to do the opposite of what he had done and felt in the past.  He became a self-contrarian.

He was raised in wealth, so he chose to eschew money.  His father taught him to care for assets, so he tossed all personal possessions.

In one story, Francis had an intense aversion to those with leprosy.  He could not even look at lepers, and avoided areas where they lived.  He was one day riding a horse and passed a leper.  He dismounted and kissed the leper on the lips.  (In another version of the story, he kissed the leper’s hand.)  Through this act, Francis was able to overcome his revulsion and happily live among lepers.


To become a great leader and start a movement lasting hundreds of years, maybe you should also become self-contrarianism.

Try doing the opposite of what you have always been taught to do.  Only make decisions with sufficient data?  Try following your gut.

Plan each day to the minute?  Allow some spontaneity once a week.

Have a policy against hiring uneducated people?  Embrace real diversity by hiring someone without a degree.

Prepare extensively for important meetings?  Try opening up a meeting to someone else’s agenda.

Generate ideas through brainstorming meetings?  Try accepting the research that proves brainstorming is ineffective, and try crowdsourcing or individual idea generation or idea contests or word-association games.

What is the ONE thing you most fear?  Phone prospecting?  Arising early to exercise?  Speaking in public?  Talking about your feelings?

Do that thing now and get it over with.


::: Be fierce. Be kind. Be knowledge-hungry. :::

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.