Top leadership lessons from the 7th-century

It is tempting to think that leadership today is uniquely bad, but when you study history you find that nothing is unique, especially when it comes to human nature. Therefore, I love reading ancient accounts of good leadership, such as by Confucius or Cicero. They can provide us insights into how to be better leaders today. And I recently came across a 7th-century letter written by the head of an empire to his new governor of Egypt on how to lead. It was excellent.

The empire, one of the fastest expanding ones in history, was the early Islamic one and covered much of the Middle East. The leader was Ali ibn Abi Talib – the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad. His letter was an outline of good governance and touched on everything from fair taxation to how to pick a cabinet. But I’ve picked out some of the more general leadership ideas and I’ve rendered the language in a more contemporary tone. Here goes:

  • You are not the first, nor last, leader. Others have come before – some good, some bad.
  • People will just your conduct, just as you judged the conduct of leaders before you
  • Control your desires and exercise self-restraint in the face of things that tempt you away from doing the right thing.
  • Develop compassion towards your subjects, love for them, and kindness towards them. Don’t be like a ravenous beast of prey above them, seeking to devour them
  • People make mistakes, so be forgiving. Your job is to meet their needs.
  • Don’t regret when you forgive, nor rejoice when you punish
  • Don’t let impulse propel you rashly towards any course of action
  • Don’t say “I have been given the authority, I order and am obeyed.” This leads to corruption
  • If your authority generates vanity and arrogance, then look at the grandeur of nature and look how powerless you are in the face of it.
  • Keep a vigilant eye over those who oppress, and listen to the cries of the oppressed
  • Be just and be inclusive of popular contentment.
  • The discontent of the common person undermines the contentment of the elites, while the discontent of the elite is compensated by the contentment of the common person
  • In times of prosperity, no one is more of a burden to the leader than the elites, and none are less helpful in tough times than the elites.
  • Keep a distance from those that seek out fault in others
  • Don’t be quick to believe a slanderer, for a slanderer is a deceiver, even if they appear in the guise of a good advisor
  • Do not listen to misers, they deflect you from generosity
  • Be careful of those that helped bad leaders before you, they were complicit in their bad actions
  • Prefer advisors who sincerely speak the truth, and who support you least when you do bad actions
  • Train the people around you to not flatter you, otherwise, it will give you pride
  • Study with experts and wise people to bring well-being to your land.
  • Pay particular attention to the lowest class – those with no wealth, the destitute, the needy, and the disabled. Do not let your snobbishness neglect them
  • Keep a watchful eye on those that have no access to you and who are disdained by the people of high standing. Find a way for their affairs to come to your attention
  • Devote some of your time to those that have special needs – making yourself free to attend to them personally
  • Set aside time for your personal development and work on your ego. This will help you perform your duties fairly.
  • Do not give special favours to your friends and family – otherwise, you will harm others
  • Don’t exaggerate your deeds, nor make promises you will break.


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