What Can Today’s Leaders Learn from the Successful Rulers of Ancient Empires?


History can be a great resource for people to learn just about anything. In the area of leadership, since rulers can rightfully be considered leaders of their times, where else to draw lessons than from the successful rulers of great ancient empires? In this short article, I have summarized 3 key recurring patterns of thoughts, actions and behaviors that are common among the successful rulers of ancient empires that can be used to aid today’s leaders to become better leaders.

1. Create branding

In ancient China, many great emperors established mystic legends about their origins. For example, Liu Bang, the founding emperor of the Chinese Han dynasty, capitalized on folklore to boost his credentials as the destined future emperor. To further cement his credentials as a rightful king, his propaganda team also alleged that he was a descendant of the mythical Emperor Yao, who descended from the Yellow Emperor.

2. Expand territory

By expanding the empire‘s territory, a ruler can harvest additional land, resources and people that would eventually help to propel the empire forward in a virtuous cycle. For example, during Catherine the Great’s reign, she expanded the Russian Empire rapidly by conquest and diplomacy. In the south, the Crimean Khanate was destroyed after victories over the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish wars, and Russia colonized the vast territories of Novorossiya along the coasts of the Black and Azov Seas. In the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned, with the Russian Empire gaining the largest share. In the east, Russia established settlements in Alaska. It is no wonder that it was during her reign that Russia was finally recognized as one of the great powers of Europe in the 18th century. Her reign was known as Russia’s golden age.

3. Implement reforms

Great rulers implement many reforms that benefit the people and the empire at large. For example, the first emperor of China, Shi Huangdi, implemented a number of reforms after the unification of China in 221 BC. In many respects, he had no choice given the complexity and diversity of ruling such a vast land with various peoples and cultures. It should be noted that the period before his unification was known as the warring states period where there were technically seven countries – with 7 systems, 7 cultures, 7 language, 7 histories etc. His reforms brought about many advances in Chinese society. The feudalistic system of the past was abolished to make way for a centralized bureaucratic government system. He implemented a standard system of weights and measures and currency. A common system of taxation was imposed from which no one was exempted (lords and high ranking officials were previously exempted in some states). The axle length on wheeled vehicles was also standardized so that traffic could be better controlled and improved. A standard system of writing was also introduced so that communication could be made easier amongst his people.

Taking a page from the 3 key recurring patterns of thoughts, actions and behaviors of successful emperors of ancient empires, today’s leaders could better earn their credential to lead by having a strong personal brand and developing special skills, knowledge and attributes. Today’s leaders need to constantly review their work and workspace to seek opportunities to take on a bigger role and make a greater business impact. Through implementing internal projects with highly visible benefits to the team a good leader can streamline and redesign business processes and systems to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire enterprise.


About the author

Zhiyang Gung is an experienced human resources development manager who drives learning and development, knowledge management, organizational development and talent management strategies and programs to enable the organization to win. He has more than 8 years of human resources experience that spans across multiple countries and industries. He likes to share with people on his knowledge and experiences in the many different areas and topics that he is passionate about.