“In the view of the wise, it is better to be out of office, than in.”

Sa’di, 13th Century Persian Poet Philosopher

Although it would be wise to avoid “being the king,” someone has to run our government’s agencies and departments and keep our businesses humming along. So, if you find yourself moving into the senior/executive leadership ranks, whether in or out of uniform, here are some ideas to remember as your office moves upstairs.

Sa’di – Poet Philosopher Provides 5 Keys to Successful Leadership

A recent BBC article about the poems of Sa’di led me to one of his masterpieces Gulistan (or Rose Garden). The book has been in English for as long as America has been a nation. While most Americans are aware of the leadership advice of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Napoleon, few have heard of the Shakespeare of Persia. The book is loaded with advice about religion, love, education, and even has a chapter on the “Art of conversation;” but I found his first chapter “The Conduct of Kings” to be very useful for those in the national security or business world. Leadership is an age-old study.

1. Should you even join the executive ranks in leadership?

This has got to be the first question you should ask yourself as you rise up near the top of your organization. Sa’di has some good cautions for those who are thinking of making the leap to the loneliest of positions. As someone who has worked on two 4-star staffs in combat and in the Pentagon, wandered the halls of Congress listening to their advice on war, given advice in the White House to senior NSC leaders, and helped a Presidential campaign transition into an Administration, I can attest I have met all the vile and also the good characters that Sa’di is warning us of in his stories and poems.

This brings us back to the opening poem. Once you meet some of the people you have to work with at the executive level of government or business, you may realize that you don’t want to be around those people all day. There are liars, swindlers, and people who are willing to betray you to take your job or fortunes. There are also loyal, noble, and dependable people that care about the organization more than they care about themselves. Sa’di simply warns us that you must be ready to be “the king,” “the director,” or “the secretary.” and take all the good and bad that comes with it.

A king speaking about his next selection of senior leaders/advisors once asked, “Certainly we need a person that is sufficiently wise to administer the kingdom?” A trusted former advisor, who had fled the government to join a religious sect, replied, “A sign of one who is sufficiently wise, is that he would not submit to such a job.”

2. Don’t be cruel or miserly. 

Why is it often difficult to get great workers to serve at the side of senior executives? Often executives are too difficult to work for. They might be “handing out gold, or lopping off the heads” of their staff all in the same moment. Your steady emotions and kindness will get more out of your team than your anger and cruelty.  While most credit the idea to a few Europeans, it was Sa’di that reminded the 13th century kings that “when a soldier is full, he charges bravely, while one whose stomach is empty will only run away.” You have to take care of your people from top-to-bottom. Saving money should be done only in areas that won’t damage the morale of your teams.

A great leader once demanded a wise dervish in Baghdad to say a prayer for him, because the religious man’s prayers were always answered. The executive told the Dervish, “Pray for my welfare!” The religious man didn’t miss a beat and prayed, “Oh God, take his life!”

The King was horrified and exclaimed, “For God’s sake, what kind of prayer is that?”

The Dervish explained, “It is a prayer for your good and for the good of all your people.” He continued, “It would be better for you to die than to torment your people.”

It is important that you have a few trusted people in your organization that can tell you how the morale of the team is going. If you are not comfortable enough to have your subordinates tell you that you are acting like a tyrant, you might be a tyrant already. Don’t lose the common touch that probably helped you rise up the ranks of your organization. Sa’di reminds us to have empathy for your people, and to “show mercy, when they fall.” He warns us that when you are in need of the full power of your people to fend off an enemy, few will lift a hand to help you if you treated them as less than human.

3. You won’t please everyone. 

There was an officer’s son in the court that had all the internal and external signs of greatness. He grew up to be intelligent, to have inner beauty, and to count virtue as his wealth instead of money. He treated others well, but the King one day asked him why his peers were jealous enough of him to even try to have him murdered. The man replied, “I have made everyone happy except the jealous, who cannot be made happy except by the loss of my wealth and by me” somehow ensuring they all receive the king’s favors. As you climb, you will meet others that will assume you have not earned what you have; they will bitterly try to ruin you for the smallest of slights. Identify them in every team you join or lead. As Sa’di also warns us, there are those who will never have “complete confidence in your ability to lead,” so you should “fear all those who fear you,” even if they are individually weak people.

4. Listen to your advisors, with caution.

A king asked two advisors about a prisoner who was about to receive his possible death penalty sentence. Both advisors knew that the prisoner, upon hearing he was being sentenced to death, had cursed the king in a vile manner. The king wanted to know the prisoner’s response to his sentencing.

The first advisor was good-natured and lied saying the prisoner quoted the Quran and said it was best to forgive others to be noble in God’s eyes. Upon hearing it, the king decided to kindly spare the man’s life.

The second advisor couldn’t stand it and spoke up. “It is not proper for people like us to speak anything but the truth in the presence of kings. This prisoner actually cursed you.”

The King then frowned and said, “his lie was more pleasing to me than your truth…the first advisor indicated the best course of action for me, while your advice was based on viciousness. The wise have said, a prudent lie is better than a seditious truth.”

When you hear your advisor’s suggestions, you must always think about why they are pushing you towards a particular decision. Remove the selfish and vicious from your circle of trust. You need wisdom at the top, not pettiness or rash thinkers.

5. Prepare for the next leader.

Finally, Sa’di tells of a king that left the throne at his death, but his corpse was never still, his eyes always moving in the grave trying to take in the situation. Advisors were asked what this meant, and one finally explained that the king forgot that he was only a caretaker for his realm. That he wanted so bad to remain in charge of his kingdom that he didn’t prepare anyone else to rule, and would never be at rest in death. So, promote great leaders, find trusted peers, and remove those unworthy of leadership from your organization. You have to leave your team better than you found it, and you should know when to let go.

Sa’di has More Leadership advice to Offer

So many stories in this first chapter of The Gulistan of Sa’di apply to leaders and especially the most senior leaders across government and business, that I highly recommend reading a copy of this Persian masterpiece. He covers topics that leaders need today, and his stories are a wonderful mix of tales and poetry. Sa’di reminds us that not everyone is as they appear on your team, so you must look beyond their outer-shell. He gives us lessons about knowing when to fire people, and to only fully trust what you can verify, because your good heart might be a poor judge.  Sa’di urges us to train like we fight, because people won’t believe they can endure hardships, until they have been exposed to hardships. Sa’di reminds us that in the end, honesty is what people expect from leaders and that the wise men haven’t “seen anyone get lost on the right road.”


*The quotes and paraphrasing in this article are from The Gulistan of Sa’di, Translation by W.M. Thackston. I used the bilingual English and Persian edition with key vocabulary.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.