The Mughal Empire stretched, at its largest extent, from modern Bangladesh to Northern Afghanistan an area today that holds around 1/7th of the world’s population. In the 1500s, a renaissance man named Babur from Farghana (or Ferghana) in modern Uzbekistan would seek to emulate his ancestor Timur the Lame and stake out an Asian empire. How he was able to build and lead the Empire is a useful study in leadership, mentorship, and stewardship for this modern era.

Often lost to senior leaders today is the ability to truly know the strengths and weaknesses of your subordinate leaders. As the military at Fort Hood is assessing right now, it is often the case that we don’t know our people as well as we think. And we often fail to use our knowledge of their limitations and abilities to determine when someone needs to be promoted or removed from service.

But we can study how to do this. Luckily the poet prince Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur has left a great record of his thoughts as a leader in his memoir The Babur Nama. I have driven by his garden resting place in Kabul hundreds of times over the years and was always curious about the man that so enjoyed the mile-high city in Afghanistan.

Assessing people

There are a few pages of The Babur Nama that caught my eye as I read the book this year; and it is where the Emperor recalls the leaders that he was around that worked for his family. The intimate way in which he can quickly describe their leadership flaws and skills provides a model for anyone that is trying to keep concise notations of their team-mates. It is a good reminder that a big team has room for many types of people. Let’s examine how he categorizes people and think about how to best use this skill.

1. Young, but Good

Babur describes a 25-year-old commander of a key gate, Khudai-birdi, as providing solid rules for his team and using a “good management” style despite his youthfulness. He also records that within a few years he would lose a battle and be killed in it.

2. Simple and stupid

The gate commander was replaced by Hafiz Duldai who lacked the social skills to get along with the locals and left the area. Duldai would bounce around to a series of new bosses in his career and eventually die on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Babur rated him as “a simple person, of few words, and not clever.”

3. Fun to be around

He recalls that Khwaja Beg was also a “good-natured and simple person.” He also records that others found Khwaja to a good dancer and singer at parties. This seems to denote the need for senior leaders to also know what their people are like outside of the workplace, and to know what others think of them.

4. Effective but vicious

One of Babur’s guardians was Shaikh Beg, whom he describes as “excellent in rule and method,” but also as a vicious man who practiced pedophilia. For all his expertise, Babur reminds us that, Shaikh proves the rule that every hero is flawed—sometimes deeply.

5. Disloyal and useless

Babur minces no words in his evaluation of Ali-mazid Quchin. He describes him as a two-time rebel who was “disloyal, untrue to his salt, vicious, and good-for-nothing.” If only senior leaders were this honest when needed, and also could turn a phrase like “untrue to his salt” in an evaluation—it would be clear to any promotion board or HR system that this guy is done.

6. Talented but dimwitted

Babur tells of a brave and skilled archer who rode horses well named Hasan. While he was smart and had a good temperament, he was also small-minded, narrow minded, and lacking in sense. To top it off he was aware that Hasan like to stir up drama among the men. There are often those semi-useful team-mates that you need to provide precise directions to, so they don’t have to think too much.

7. A heathen who took care of his men

Baba-quli was one of Babur’s guardians and is noted for excellent management skills and for caring for equipment. Babur also notes that he took good care of his men—a great attribute for leaders. He also recalled that he was a heathen who avoided prayer and fasting, and that he was actually a tyrant.

8. Worthless and Selfish

Babur is especially harsh in his assessment of Ali-dost Taghai. He hints in his records that he was told that Ali was a solid leader and so he put much faith in him, only to be disappointed. You aren’t a leader until this episode happens to you with one of your subordinates. Ali, he recounts claimed many skills he didn’t have, even the power to bring the rains. He describes his character as “stingy, severe, false, and self-pleasing.” Organizations that now how to remove these people from their ranks before they can spread their poison are better for it.

9. Good, up to a point

Qambar-ali Muhgal or the “The Skinner” was a man Babur described to be excellent in conduct from his days as a water bearer until he “arrived” in the upper echelons. From that point forward the Emperor found him to be “slack” and constantly engaging in “foolish talk.” Babur noted Qambar’s “capacity was limited and his brain muddy.” Senior leaders will meet many a talker that hits a wall in their ability, and then flounders. The trick is to stop them before they move beyond their capacity.

10. The Confident/Fearless Joker

Mir Ghiyas Taghai is one of the few to earn mostly high marks from Babur in his memoirs. He complements him as being the most gallant leaders who confidently led from the front. Those he worked for were always fond of him and enjoyed his laughter and joking ways. I am not sure of the exact meaning but we should also keep a special eye on anyone like Mir, whom Babur also credits with being “fearless in vice;” or send them to the naval infantry.

11. An entertaining and brave leader worthy of mentoring

I save for the last the best evaluation I could find of his associates. Babur describes the leader worthy of his mentorship, affection, and favor. Qasim Beg Quchin he poetically encapsulates in this a beautiful sentence: “His life through, his authority and consequence waxed without decline.” Qasim is described as the leader that was visible in the battle where he “hewed away” with his sword wading into the enemy. Babur notes that even as he aged this commander fought better than the younger men. You can sense that this is the one-man Babur wanted the others to be like, that this was the leadership model he sought. Babur also notes that Qasim was pious and in his view a proper Muslim; which may be why he credits him with excellent judgment. His note about the good joke-telling skills of Qasim shows how close the men likely were. Babur closes his description of Qasim Beg Quchin with a rare complement; that he sought his wise counsel despite Qasim being unable to read or write.

How this can impact our evaluation process

Babur was making these keen and honest observations in the 1500s not long after Columbus made his famous voyages. His people were far-flung at times over 20,000-foot mountains, murderous deserts, and roaring wide rivers. Yet this emperor took the time and made the effort to really understand his people, and record those insights for himself to use and for history to discover. If he can lead a massive empire and be a keen study of humanity in a time before telegraph or internet, what excuse to modern senior leaders have for failing to know their key leaders? What excuse do modern organizations have for placing responsibility on leaders that are flawed and unprepared?

When assessing and notating your views of your people here are some good rules to follow: simple counts, get to what matters about the person, be honest, and know when it is time to tell someone to stop moving-up or to leave. If you truly know your team-mates like Babur did, the horrific mistakes that sometimes occur (that can cost lives) are less likely to happen. You also won’t put your deeply flawed leaders into positions where they can make catastrophic mistakes. Finally, you will know when you can trust an imperfect leader to try to grow in a new position, because you can give them the directions you know they need to cover their gaps in leadership.

Babur was a poet, a nature lover, a warrior, and an emperor. He mastered many key tenets of leadership, mentorship, and stewardship—long before there were elaborate leadership courses and hundreds of books on the topic. Our US government agencies and departments could use a few more renaissance leaders like Babur to clean out the bad leaders and promote the good ones. Likely no government leader will earn a garden in Kabul for their efforts to better understand their team-mates and promote or demote them accordingly, but the effort is noble.

In my career I have only found a few Qasims. They are the leaders we should all seek to create in our role as mentors and as stewards of our organizations. I hope you get to find many like Qasim and promote them to positions where they can make a difference.


*Quotes from The Babur Nama by Emperor Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur, as translated by Annette Susannah Beveridge

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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.