Genghis Khan and the disruption of the disruptors


This past weekend I had occasion to visit Inner Mongolia. Now, of course, Inner Mongolia is part of China and is probably quite different from Mongolia proper, but long ago it was all open land belonging to the tribes of the Mongols that united under Genghis Khan and created the largest empire on Earth, stretching all the way from China in the East to Central Europe, taking in Persia and parts of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries along the way.

Legend has it that the world almost became a global Mongolian empire – their armies were poised to conquer Hungary when Ogodei Khan – Genghis’s son and heir – died. The generals all had to return to Mongolia to decide on their new leader and once they left, they never returned to continue their conquest of Europe.

The reality is slightly more nuanced. Before Genghis Khan, the Mongols were divided into several tribes who often fought each other. They lived a nomadic life, pitching their yurts to make camp and moving regularly with the grass and the seasons. Genghis was the first to unite all the tribes into one great army and start invading the neighbouring countries. However, while it was relatively easy to be a marauding force that thundered in on horseback, looted, plundered and then left, it was quite different from settling down and running an empire. This was a dichotomy that the tribes never quite got over. Ogodei’s death resulted in a tussle for the position of supreme leader and more importantly, for a clear vision and future. Were they going to continue expanding their empire or go back to being nomadic horsemen who rode into battle mainly for short term plunder? The tribes splintered into four (later five) khanates, and over time the people they’d conquered absorbed their rulers and eventually overshadowed them.

Would it have been a bad thing if the Mongolian expansion had continued? By all accounts, Genghis Khan was a pretty enlightened leader, proscribing undue violence by his troops, enforcing a standard civil code across all citizens of his empire and absorbing the conquered people into his administration. Perhaps if they’d conquered the world and let their Persian and Chinese administrators (and Hungarian?) run it, they’d have gone back to the grasslands to ride free and roam the land.

Today, their boundless grasslands are all marked with barbed wire fences to demarcate farm holdings, the grass is not native to the region but something the Chinese government has planted which has a better yield. Yurts come complete with a proper toilet, hot and cold water, floor heating and wifi – and by the way, they are all semi-permanent structures with a fake tent covering on the outside. Genghis Khan would turn in his grave if he saw it.

Today, Inner Mongolia is mainly populated by Han people – the ethnic majority of China. They run the tourist attractions, the horse riding, the tourist friendly yurt experience, the “local” restaurants, the desert treks…everything. We saw perhaps 3 Mongolian people over the 3 days we were there. Where their forefathers once thundered across endless grasslands on their sturdy ponies, putting fear in the hearts of all who saw them coming, the Mongolian people are now a footnote in history.

Why did they fail? Perhaps because, as in the modern world, it’s relatively easy to go in as a disruptor, but what happens when you succeed? Do you have a plan for going from marauder to administrator? Do you have a plan for what happens when you become the one everyone is trying to disrupt? Most companies don’t – they succeed in a certain role and when success forces them to change that role they don’t necessarily know what to do and how to adapt. The pages of business history are full of examples and I’ve written about a few of them elsewhere in this blog – Apple, IKEA, Google and others are all more similar to the long vanished Mongolian Empire than they know. Disruptors about to be disrupted.