Genghis Khan’s Modern tips for great teamwork


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We’ve looked at the makings of memorable military units and the armies of some of history’s greatest empires in the past year.  We’ve talked about how some of the very skills and principles from strength and conditioning were utilized to maximize their effectiveness.

And really it goes to show sometimes how these very same principles that apply to working out and the science of training can be used on so much more than just building physical traits.

Taking on the same premise as the two previous articles in this series (Part 1, Part 2), we’ll take a look at one of the largest conquerors in the medieval era:  Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde.



  1. Adopting old skills to new settings
  2. Overcoming Dysfunctions of a Team
  3. Creating a Merit-Based environment


Who were the Mongols?

The Mongols of Genghis Khan’s era (late 1100s C.E. to early 1200s) were a steppe-based nomadic people who thrived on a pastoral life but who were also prone to tribal warfare. The main challenges that affected them included protecting of women, food resources, and fighting/raiding from other tribes.

The Mongol expansion

Tribal warfare was a major hindrance on the Mongol tribes, preventing similar people from becoming a larger collective.  Neighboring empires like China capitalized on this disunity for their own goals.

It wasn’t until a guy by the name of Temujin (soon to be Genghis Khan) was able to unite the tribes, even the Turkic ones, into a growing military threat to the rest of Asia and even Eastern Europe.

A Different Approach

Beautiful Mongolia

With this installment we’re going to do things a little different.  We’re going to look at not only how skills were transferred from running a tribe to building and sustaining an empire, but more importantly, we’re going to look at how establishing foundations of team-building enabled Genghis Khan’s mongol’s to become something more than just a group of warring tribes.

Going back to some core concepts of cultural anthropology from my college days, I remember a lecture by my professor, Rose Denunzio, about societal structures.  The most basic forms of human organization were bands, then you had tribes, chiefdoms, and then states.

The main issues with the more basic forms of organization were the constant fighting between tribes and chiefdoms over women and food.  Wars would be fought and unrest would be created.

Often times, more complex and developed forms of organization, like nation states would be able to capitalize on smaller organizations by preying on these weaknesses for their own suits.  You could say these conflicts were like proxy wars, leaving the real perpetrators in the distance while the actual fighting was done by tribesmen.

To take back the steppe from the control of these national states, Genghis Khan had to overcome the dysfunctions of the tribal world.

Interestingly, many of these strategies reminded me of a book on establishing better team chemistry, by Patrick Lencioni called, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  Now, Genghis Khan isn’t mentioned in the book but there are similarities from general dysfunction in human organisation, that people in a team (regardless of context) can take benefit from.

Overcoming The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

  1. Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  2. Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  3. Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
  4. Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behavior which sets low standards
  5. Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

How did Genghis Overcome these obstacles and build Training volume?

The Nerge

Now, there were different aspects of Mongol life that prepared them for military success.  One of them was the Nerge.  The Nerge was basically a hunting ritual in Mongol culture that occurred once a year as tribes would go on mass hunting sprees to gather meat.

This seemingly unrelated ritual would become the cornerstone of Mongol tactics as Genghis Khan drew several tribes together, eventually forming a nation as they engulfed other nations.

Like Mongol warfare, the Nerge focused on fighting divided and attacking united.  The hunting party would fan out, covering a large area but always in communicable range.

The would-be prey would be baited with lots of arrows from the iconic horse-mounted archers of Mongol-fame, provoking the animals.

Then, as the prey were distracted by the onslaught of raining arrows, the horsemen would encircle the animals in a pincer, trapping them.

Finally, when the prey was enveloped, the kill maneuver would be enacted with the heavy lancers delivering a decisive blow, slowly bleeding out the numbers of the enemy forces or animal.

Even complex signaling strategies were used in hunting.  Sometimes the hunts would go by silently, using only flags and lamps (at night).  Its not hard to see how most of these strategies could be directly used in a military sense.  Large-scale warfare was approached by the Mongols, like hunting, always being on the offensive.

Using Meritocracy to overcome Dysfunction

Genghis Khan would actually be the victim to the tribal weaknesses of things like nepotism and betrayal, as he was growing up.

His father was the leader of their tribe but was at one point poisoned by a rival tribe.

He died.

Yet, rather than have his own tribe care for the now fatherless child, his mother, and several siblings, the tribe cast them out to fend for themselves.

The family would experience extreme starvation, even leading Genghis to kill his older brother.

In these moments, Genghis Khan experienced the dysfunction of tribal life and how dividing it could be.  He could see how much larger nations used this fragile structure of the Mongols to their own advantage.

He thought to do things differently.

Eventually Genghis Khan would slowly gain affluence, uniting the Mongol tribes together.  After becoming the leader of a slowly uniting nation, he chose to not make the same mistakes that plagued his people.  With that, he chose generals based upon merit rather than kinship.

As such, all who truly showed leadership ability were chosen for the responsibility of leading several thousand warriors in epic battles.  With this  policy, someone as un-affluent as a sheep herder had the potential to become a great general if he showed ability.

This merit-based policy of promotion proved incredible profitable when Genghis discovered a man by the name of Subodei.

This man, the son of a blacksmith, rose through the ranks of the mongol military to become one of the greatest military tacticians in Mongol history.  It was through Subodei’s intrepid sense of military strategy that Genghis’ empire threatened to reach as far as Vienna in Austria.

Even after Genghis’ death (around 1227 C.E.), some speculate that, if history had not turned for the worst with the death of Genghis’ heir, Ogedei Khan (1186-1241 C.E.), Subodei would have further expanded the empire through Italy, Germany, and France.

Thus, with the way that Genghis and his men fought and organized themselves, they were able to plough through Asia and Eastern Europe to form their vast empire.

It started with military organization

Money, Mongolia, Currency, Bank, Finance, National

With each nation’s capture, its officers were put to use as advisers for the Great Khan.  These scholars, military men, administrators, and craftsmen ranged from many ethnicity.  With such a diverse advising palate, the Mongol’s were able to gain a variety of information ranging from new military technologies, craftsmanship, medicine, as well as economic systems.

Most importantly, they gained information about foreign lands yet to be conquered.  As such, as ethnic diversity increased, and knowledge with it, so did the ability of the Mongol’s to effectively combat and subdue potential enemies.

On a more social level, Genghis Khan encouraged mass intermarriage, having taken on two Chinese wives himself, to blur the lines of ethnic differentiation, and to unite all his people.  This enabled the prevention of internal strife among different cultures, which then allowed a focus on external enemies.

This was strikingly depicted within military organization.  Genghis Khan divided his men into inter-ethnic squads who were ordered to live with each other and defend one another as brothers.  Eventually this organization covered all of Mongol society and set a fundamental unity among the Mongol empire.

Creating Trust: The Lake Baljuna Covenant

In 1203 C.E., Genghis, then called by his birth name, Temujin, was in the process of uniting all the Mongol tribes. He had a key rival in a man named Jamuka and the only thing keeping the two wolves from tearing one another apart was their mutual ally, Ong Khan (1130 – 1203 C.E).

Ong (leader of the Kerait tribe and friend to Temujin’s father, Yesugei) had in the past shown private favoritism to Temujin but to Temujin this was not enough.

Yesugei, Genghis' fathet
Yesugei, Genghis’ father

The rising khan sought to make Ong’s allegiance public by a marriage proposal between one of Ong’s daughters and Temujin’s eldest son, Jochi. By doing so, he would have solidified his ability to take over Jamuka’s tribes under his own.

Upon hearing of this proposal, Ong refused but later accepted, secretly planning to assassinate Temujin at the wedding ceremony.  While in transit to the wedding, Temujin got hold of the assassination plot and quickly ordered his family to disperse.

At the same time, he and the few soldiers that he had brought with him as escorts to the wedding, attempted to evade Ong.

After days of hard riding, the men had become exhausted beyond belief.  Resting along the coast of Lake Baljuna, Temujin and his party were in despair.  With all hope lost and the ever growing danger of Ong and his men falling upon the weary khan’s men, all seemed lost.

That is, until a wild horse appeared in the distant coast.

The fatigued group were in awe at such a sight and quickly went to slaughter the animal to eat.

However there was no wood to start a fire nor any pots to boil the meat in.  At this point an old Mongolian cooking technique was recalled and the group began skinning the animal and using the hide as a bowl to make a stew.

Fuel for a fire was made through lighting dried dung which was then used to heat rocks

When heated, these rocks were placed underneath the hide to cook the stew.

After gorging themselves with the nourishment of the horse meat, the group realized that such a blessing was something supernatural.

At this point, Temujin gave gratitude to his companions for staying by his side through all the hardships that they had faced since the realization of Ong’s assassination attempt, and the men pledged eternal allegiance to Temujin.

This oath-taking was later to be called the Baljuna Covenant.

Eagle hunter
Photo Courtesy of Boaz Rottem via Flickr

What was truly amazing of this covenant was the amount of diversity among its members.  Not only were there several tribes among the group but more importantly, several religious groups were represented.

Shamanists, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims made up the companions, all united under their oath to Temujin.  Their religious backgrounds did not matter to the-soon-to-be, Great Khan.

Those that were loyal to Genghis would forever remain in his good favor and he would in turn show favor of proper worth for such loyalty.

Its kind of frightening to see how powerful overcoming the dysfunction of a team can be.  It can produce devastatingly high level of results, as Genghis Khan would cut a path in human blood in making his new empire.  Regardless of cause, creating unity in a team is probably one of the most challenging yet incredibly beneficial hurdles to overcome.

Summing it all up

Now the Mongols killed and pillaged through and through.  And we’re not trying to showcase how awesome that is, at all.  What we are trying to show is the power of team-building, merit-based collaboration, how skills translate to new endeavors.  Being open-minded, establishing trust, and creating an environment to share professional opinions, are qualities that create an incredible team.  Even if the end-goals is something as devastating as conquering half of Asia.



Genghis Khan and Mongol Rule by George Lane

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World By Jack Weatherford

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team  By Patrick Lencioni