Management Lessons from Attila the Hun

If you’re looking to improve your management chops, emphasis on the chops, you can take some lessons from one of the legendary leaders of history: Attila the Hun.

I recently completed Attila: King of the Huns: The Man and the Myth, and that book offers these lessons from the reign of the warrior-king:

  • Build a team of diverse talents.

    As a ruler, Attila was an originator, in some respects a revolutionary. He clearly perceived that if the Huns were to become a great power, as he intended them to be, they must learn from other more advanced peoples. His own intimate circle of advisers, in consequence, consisted largely of foreigners.

    If you hire and promote only people who’ve worked in your business line or only in your particular methodology, you’re going to be bound to only insights and knowledge of those. If you hire from outside them, though, the foreigners might teach you something about what you’re doing that someone of your tribe would not innovate.

  • Let the farmers farm.

    When the Huns occupied a new territory large numbers of people fled before them, but the numbers of those who remained were larger still. Many of those who stayed were agriculturalists, and the Huns not only allowed them to continue to till the land, but encouraged them to do so.

    When you take on a new assignment or position, some turnover might occur as people leave to follow their mentors or because they feel that they, not you, should be the barbarian king of the tribe. Accept that. Those who stay have a lot of experience in the field. Don’t immediately overturn everything they do to conform to your new methods which might be informed and learned, but might not apply. Let those workers show you how they do things, and you can learn from them and, if appropriate, gradually increase the taxes introduce your improvements. Otherwise, more will fly, and you’ll lost a lot of knowledge with them.

  • Avoid the trappings of the title.

    ‘While sumptuous food, served on silver plates,’ he [Priscus] wrote, ‘had been prepared for the other barbarians and for us, for Attila there was nothing but meat on a wooden platter. He showed himself temperate in all other ways, too, for gold and silver goblets were offered to the men at the feast, but his mug was of wood.’

    In dress and general appearance also Attila was noticeably different from the others present. ‘His dress was plain, having care for nothing other than to be clean, nor was the sword by his side, nor the clasps of his barbarian boots, nor the bridle of his horse, like those of the Scythians, adorned with gold or gems or anything of high price.’

    If you’re too busy showing everyone you’re the leader, you’re not leading, you’re pillaging. Back when I was an actual Director of Quality and not merely a Director Emeritus, I had my cards say simply, “Quality Assurance.” Because my title wasn’t important, what I did was important. Plus, you get the respect of the blue collar grunts if you do like they do and live like they do. Or at least you get my respect.

  • Break something early.

    The wholesale destruction of a major town early in a campaign was a strategy adopted by Attila in both France and Germany. Metz recovered to become a city of importance. Aquileia did not. But the news of what happened in both places spread, as it was no doubt intended to, and the rulers of other cities duly took note.

    This is not to say you break the process or the methodology early, as I have advised against that above. However, every posting comes with some sort of deliverable, and the sooner after you take your position that you can create absolute havoc with it, the more the developers and other team members will listen to you when you explain how to avoid that in the future. Or maybe they’ll just fear you’ll do it to them, so they’ll be more careful. Either way, making that splash early can really ramp up your influence.

  • You don’t need a long contract or employment to make a lasting impression.

    Attila was sole King of the Huns for a mere eight years. In that short time the impact he made on his contemporaries was extraordinary. Much of this was due to his conquests. Eight years was a short period in which to hold both the Eastern and Western Empires to ransom with the threat of capturing and destroying both Constantinople and Rome, in addition to overrunning much of Germany and France.

    If you’re audacious and capable enough, you can make a lasting impression on an organization, its product, and its quality that will last long after you’re sacked for drinking kumis on the job on your third day. At the very least, they’ll remember the fermented mare’s milk.

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