The Mangudai

What can we learn from a 13th century Mongol selection process – and why do shared experiences have such power?

Recently I read a couple of articles about building leadership teams and a few more about the “experience economy.” Reading these took me back to 1999 when I achieved one of my life-long dreams as I became the commanding officer for Weapons Company, 3d Battalion, 3d Marines. Other Marines reading this who also went through a similar experience will remember how thankful, excited, and nervous we were to reach this position.

That year I was also a recent graduate of the Marine Corps’ Amphibious Warfare School in Quantico, Virginia, where I had engaged in endless conversations with my peers about what it would be like to command a company. We all wanted to do well, of course. I also remember a lot of discussion about how we would try and build strong leadership teams, especially with the lieutenants who would be platoon commanders (our direct reports, in business language) in our companies. One of my buddies mentioned something called “the Mangudai,” who were elite warriors in the Mongol army of the 13th century. The Mangudai commander ran a selection process in which he would take candidates out into the wilderness for several days, deprive them of food and sleep, and subject them to physical and mental challenges. After observing their performance under this stress, he would make his selections.

This idea was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a real challenge that my lieutenants and I could all do together, an event that would be unique to us and one that would forge tight bonds of trust among us. As the new lieutenants who would take charge of the company’s platoons started to arrive and check in, I collaborated in planning a Mangudai event with an experienced lieutenant who was scheduled to leave the company within a few months. His behind the scenes efforts allowed our new leadership group to go to the field together, eat one ration a day, hike long distances under load (sandbags are heavy!), solve challenging land navigation problems, and fire our rifles for score on the range. And immediately after it was over, we cleaned up and shared a “warrior’s dinner” at Duke’s on Waikiki.

I learned a tremendous amount through this experience. At the time, it was an excellent way to see my lieutenants perform under pressure without putting Marines at risk if one of us made a mistake. Since we did it together, over time it gave us a touchstone to remember. I also think its shared nature increased the level of trust among us. In the years since, the event shaped my thinking about what it takes to build a true leadership team.

If you’re thinking about doing some team-building of your own, here are a couple of things that I think are of value for you:

1. When people buy a thing, six months later they often regret it or they say it has diminished in value. Six months after sharing an experience, most people will say it was even better than when they originally experienced it. This includes situations when the experience didn’t go perfectly: if there’s bad weather on a camping trip for example, after time goes by most people remember it as, “We overcame that bit of adversity together.”

2. Putting people into novel situations can accelerate change or growth. Experiencing something new creates new patterns in the brain. Leaders who associate their change goals or growth objectives with a novel experience often find they’ve created a powerful source of leverage to use in moving their organization forward.

3. Alignment of action is an implicit goal for any kind of organization seeking to optimize performance. Shared experiences create shared memories and common bonds. These then become a potent fertilizer for astute leaders who seek to grow the alignment within their leadership teams.

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