Leadership Advice From Kublai Khan

Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan in Marco Polo — Netflix

Depending on what stage or state of life that you are in, there will be a Netflix Original that resonates with your situation.

One of my friends recommended that I watch Marco Polo on Netflix. He probably did it because I’m Asian, and other than Hawaii Five-O, Marco Polo appears to have cast all of the other Asian Actors that are not Ken Jeong.

For me, coming from a situation similar to that of Marco Polo who is portrayed as a trusted servant to the “Khan of Khan’s”, the scenarios that present themselves as Kublai Khan addresses one leadership decision after another, really made me reflect on leadership in general.

Even though Khan ruled approximately 700 years ago, one cannot question his effectiveness.

Never confuse popularity with effectiveness. Being popular means you are liked. Being effective means you mattered. — @ChrisHogan360

Here are a few takeaways about leadership in the way of Kublai Khan based on what I’ve watched so far.

  1. Protect your reputation at all costs — In a scene where Kublai Khan was asking Marco Polo about an incident regarding Jingim (The Great Khan’s son), there was one other person in the room who I will call “the observer”. Kublai Khan caught Marco in a lie and then proceeded to beat the observer to death stating that knowledge of being lied to should not be made public. The observer was the only other person that would have known the conversation between Kublai and Marco. Open loop closed as they say.
  2. Be consistent in your actions and behavior — Inconsistency in behavior or actions causes confusion among your followership. All leaders have hot buttons. In the case of Kublai Khan, as he is portrayed, he didn’t like being lied to and he didn’t like people skirting around questions that he asked. When dealing with an effective leader, you should know exactly how he or she communicates and how he or she wants to be communicated to. In the case of Kublai Khan, not knowing could result in your life ending unexpectedly. If anything, he was consistent.
  3. Handle your business directly and personally when the situation requires it — As soon as Kublai Khan realized that his brother, Ariq was against him, he handled it directly on the field of battle. He didn’t let his armies or a second in command hash it out. He met his brother in the middle of a field and proceeded to fight to the death. Once he was victorious, he made the message loud and clear who was in charge.
  4. Listen to your trusted advisers — When you watch the show, it’s apparent that Kublai Khan only trusts one person implicitly — Chabi, his wife. His guard is down and he processes everything that she says. In a man of his position, where everyone is coming after him, having her is the one thing that keeps him from becoming distracted by all of the problems that come with being the head of a dynasty.
  5. Make sure that trust and loyalty of people close to you is continuously tested — At points you believe that Marco Polo has the Khan’s trust. But then you realize that his loyalty is always being tested. As an example, Polo’s father and uncle are caught trying to steal valuable silk worms. Kublai Khan puts it on Marco Polo to come up with an appropriate sentence. Khan makes it a point to tell Marco that he knows what his father and uncle did — and he knows the ways and customs of the Mongols. Khan is putting Polo to the test by having him make a near impossible decision.
  6. Decide swiftly based on the information at hand— In the 1200’s, saying that Kublai Khan had to make decisions based on a lack of information is an understatement. There are multiple instances where you see the Khan processing information and quickly making a decision. And once that decision is made, everyone is clear that it has been made and it needs to be executed. A leader’s responsibility is to not only make good decisions, but make them quickly. By doing it quickly, even bad decisions can be rectified.
  7. Always stay a step ahead— There is a scene where Khan sends his son to meet with representatives of the Walled City. (Spoiler alert) The scene plays out where Jingim (the son) has a successful negotiation and ‘wins’ through diplomacy and being politician. Fast forward and it turns out as the representatives from the Walled City were riding back home, they are swiftly “dealt with” by the illusion of the Mongols. There is a difference between being a step ahead in the sleight of hand sort of way and being a step ahead strategically. What I am talking about is staying a step ahead strategically. Being caught up in the day-to-day routines and every next email does not make for good leadership. Every leader’s tactical move has a strategic intent.

Being a leader is not easy because you cannot be everyone’s friend. In Kublai Khan’s instance, his leadership was about legacy. The dynasty was bigger than the he was.

In today’s age, whether you are leading a family, a sports team, or a company — any of of those are bigger than one person.

Leaders come and go. But their legacy and what they leave behind remains forever.