People Don’t Follow Titles: Necessity and Sufficiency in Leadership

“Colonel Graff: You have a habit of upsetting your commander.
Ender Wiggin: I find it hard to respect someone just because they outrank me, sir.”
— Orson Scott Card

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Many leaders confuse necessary conditions for leadership with sufficient ones.

Titles often come with the assumption people will follow you based on a title. Whether by election, appointment, or divine right, at some point you were officially put in the position. But leadership is based on more than just titles.

Not only do title-based leaders feel like once they get the title that everyone will fall in line, but they also feel they are leading because they are in charge — a violation of the golden rules of leadership. This makes them toxic to organization culture.

A necessary condition for leadership is trust, which doesn't come from titles. You have to earn it.

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Necessary conditions are those that must be present, but are not, on their own, enough for achievement. This is an exceptional mental model that will help you achieve outcomes.

Perhaps an easy example will help illuminate. Swinging at a pitch in baseball is necessary to hit the ball, but not sufficient to do so.

War offers another example. It's necessary to know the capabilities of your enemy and their positions, but that is not sufficient to win a battle.

Leadership can be very similar. Being in a position of leadership is necessary to lead an organization, but that is not sufficient to get people moving towards a common goal. Titles, on their own, do not confer legitimacy. And legitimacy is one of the sufficient conditions of leadership.

If your team, organization, or country doesn't view you as legitimate you will have a hard time getting anything done. Because they won’t work for you, and you can’t do it all yourself. Leadership without legitimacy is a case of multiply by zero.

There is a wonderful example of this, from the interesting history of the Mongolians. In his book The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, Jack Weatherford tells an amazing story of the unlikely, but immensely successful, leadership of Manduhai the Wise.

250 years after Genghis Khan, the empire was in fragments. The Mongols had retreated into their various tribes, often fighting each other and nominally ruled by outsiders from China and the Middle East. There was still a Khan, but he exercised no real power. The Mongol tribes were very much at the mercy of their neighbors.

In 1470 the sitting Khan died, survived only by a junior wife. There were immediate suitors vying for her affection because by marrying her the title of Khan could be claimed. Her name was Manduhai. Instead of choosing the easy path of remarriage and an alliance, she decided to pursue her dream of uniting the Mongol nation.

First, she had to choose a consort that would allow her to keep the title of Queen. There was one remaining legitimate survivor of Genghis Khan’s bloodline – a sickly 7-year-old boy. Orphaned as a baby and neglected by his first caregiver, he had been under Manduhai’s protection for a few years. Because of his lineage, she took him to the Shrine of the First Queen and asked for divine blessings in installing him as the Great Khan. They would rule together, but clearly, due to his age and condition, she would be in charge.

Although her words would be addressed to the shrine, and she would face away from the crowd, there could be no question that, in addition to being the spiritual outcry of a pilgrim, these words constituted a desperate plea of a queen to her people. This would be the most important political speech of her life.

She was successful in securing the appointment. But Manduhai understood that the title of Great Khan for the little boy and Khatun (Queen) for her would not be enough. She needed the support of all the Mongol tribes to give the titles legitimacy, and here there were a significant number of obstacles to overcome.

Twice before in the previous generations, boys of his age had been proclaimed Great Khan, only to be murdered by their rivals before they could reach full maturity. Other fully grown men who bore the title were also ignominiously struck down and killed by the Muslim warlords who tried to control them.

First Manduhai had to keep herself and the boy, Dayan Khan, alive. Then she had to demonstrate that they were the right people to unite the Mongol tribes and ensure prosperity for all. This would take both physical battles and a strategic understanding of how to employ little power for great effect. Her success was by no means guaranteed.

Throughout their reign, as on this awkward inaugural day, they frequently benefited from the underestimation of their abilities by those who struggled against them. In the world where physical strength and mastery of the horse and bow seemed to be all that really mattered, no one seemed to anticipate the advantages of patient intelligence, careful planning, and consistency of action.

It was these traits that led Manduhai to carefully craft her plan of action. She needed to position herself as a true leader that could unite the Mongol tribes.

Vows, prayers, and rituals before a shrine added much needed scared legitimacy to Dayan Khan’s rule, but without force of arms, they amounted to empty gestures and wasted breath. Only after demonstrating that she had the skill to win, as well as the supernatural blessing to do so, could Manduhai hope to rule the Mongols. She had enemies on every side, and she needed to choose her first battle carefully. She had to confront each enemy, but she had to confront each in its own due time. Manduhai needed to manage the flow of conflicts by deciding when and where to fight and not allowing others to force her into a war for which she was not prepared or stood little chance of winning.

She made an important strategic alliance with one of the failed suitors, a popular and intelligent general who controlled the area immediately east of her power base. Then she went to battle to secure her western front. Some tribes supported her from the outset, due to the spiritual power of her partnership with the boy, the ‘true Khan’. The rest she conquered, support snowballing behind her.

In addition to its strategic importance, the western campaign against the Oirat was a notable propaganda victory, demonstrating that Manduhai had the blessing of the Shrine of the First Queen and the Eternal Blue Sky. Manduhai showed that she was in control of her country.

Grinding it out in the trenches inspired support. Manduhai demonstrated the courage and intelligence to lead and to provide what her people needed. She was not an empire builder, seeking to conquer the world. Rather, she was pragmatic desiring to unify the Mongol nation to ensure they had the means to thwart any future attempt at takeover by a foreign power.

In contrast to the expansive territorial acquisition favored by prior generations of steppe conquerors, Manduhai pursued a strategy of geographic precision. Better to control the right spot rather than be responsible for conquering, organizing, and running a massive empire of reluctant subjects. … Rather than trying to conquer and occupy the extensive links of the Silk Route or the vast expanse of China, she sought to conquer just the strategic spot from which to control them.

Her story teaches us the difference between necessity and sufficiency when it comes to leadership.

Manduhai ticked all the necessary boxes, being a Queen, choosing a descendant of Genghis Khan to rule by her side, and asking for meaningful spiritual blessings. While necessary these were not sufficient to rule. To actually be accepted as a leader, she had to prove herself both on the battlefield and in strategic negotiations. She understood that people would only follow her if they believed in her, and saw that she was working for them. And finally, she also considered how to use her leadership to create something that would continue long after she had gone.

Manduhai concentrated the remainder of her life in protecting what she had accomplished and making certain that the nation could sustain itself after her departure. With the same assiduous devotion she had applied to the battlefield and the unification of the Mongol nation, Manduhai and Dayan Khan now set to the reorganization of the Mongol government and its protection in the future.

In this, she succeeded. She cemented her power as Queen by ultimately working for the peace and prosperity of the entire Mongol nation. Perhaps this is why she is remembered by them as Mandukhai the Wise.