What can leaders learn from the Incas?

Source: Management Team (30/11/2018); Author: Karlien Vanderheyden

Around 1000 AD, the Incas moved from the Andean mountains to the fertile valley around the Peruvian city of Cuzco. This marked the starting point of 500 years of territorial expansion, ultimately making the Inca Empire the largest in the southern hemisphere.

The Incas had certain progressive ideas that made their empire work extremely well. As managers, we still have something to learn from them today.

An ingenious communication system

Rapid communication – even with the most remote areas of the empire – was very important to the Incas. They constructed an advanced network of roads through jungles and across mountain ranges that you can still follow today. This huge network allowed the chasquis – Inca runners – to transport messages and supplies across the entire empire, covering a distance of up to 240 kilometres per day. The system allowed the Inca leader to exchange information with all the inhabitants of his empire both quickly and efficiently.

Even today, the importance of rapid communication which reaches even the furthest corners of the organisation should not be underestimated. Research by BearingPoint into decision-making in the digital age has shown that leaders need to shift from a ‘command and control’ model to shared decision-making through the exchange of information with all stakeholders. The involvement of parties such as employees is crucial when it comes to making high-quality decisions. The same research shows that information from employees who are not directly involved in the decision-making process influences 60% of good decisions. And when it comes to decisions which involve a high risk factor for the organisation, this figure can be as high as 71%. Professor Corinne Post from Lehigh University in the US, who has also studied effective leadership in the digital era, reached the conclusion that good communication with everyone in the organisation, across the various departments, is one of the critical success factors.

At one with their enemy

The Incas had an unusual way of dealing with their defeated enemies. The Inca ruler forced large groups of people to relocate to other parts of the empire so they could learn from each other. This system was known as ‘mitima’. In this way, the different peoples learned respect for each other's knowledge and customs. The Incas did not just wish to impose their own ideas; they were also open to the knowledge and strengths of other cultures. For example, the Incas learned about medicine from the people of Paracas, astronomy from the inhabitants of Nazca and metalworking from the Chimu. The Tiahuanaco, in turn, were skilled architects.

A study by Gallup (2014) demonstrates that the optimal deployment of employees' strengths inevitably benefits the organisation. Employees who mainly work on the basis of their strengths are more engaged and perform better. The best way of helping people to grow and develop is therefore to identify and build on their talents. The Incas also teach us that breaking through existing barriers is extremely effective. Various people, including Professor Corinne Post, have demonstrated the importance of breaking down the walls between the different teams and departments. It is important for managers to focus on cross-functional communication and work towards a shared goal.

Progress through experimentation

On the circular terraces of Moray near Cuzco, the Incas created an experimental agricultural site where they grew different crops in various different climates. They created 20 different microclimates with different temperatures and studied the best ways to grow potatoes, corn, quinoa, amaranth and pumpkin.

According to Professor Amy Edmonson, systematic experimentation is one of the critical success factors for effective learning in an organisation. As a leader, if you want your people to be innovative, it's best to encourage them to do things which they haven't done before. They need to be able to try things out, make mistakes, learn from them and improve. As a leader, you must show your employees that failure generates very useful information and that it is important to gain these insights before your competitors do.

Simple rules of thumb

Finally, the Incas lived by three main principles: do not lie, do not steal and work hard. With no prisons or complicated legislation, this simple code of conduct ensured clarity and discipline while still providing sufficient flexibility.

Agility, a term which is increasingly common these days, refers to the growing need for organisations to respond quickly to internal and external changes. This requires a high degree of flexibility, i.e. no cumbersome structure or multitude of rules and procedures. A report by McKinsey shows that truly agile organisations are both stable and dynamic. As a leader, it is important for your employees to see this stability reflected in various clear basic principles. These form the foundation which allows the organisation to respond quickly and take action without delay.

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