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The greatest leader you've never heard of


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This guy never made the cover of The Wall Street Journal and had few financial resources, little to no technology and many hurdles. Yet he ignited a huge growth spurt and united a disparate organization into an empire.

He built infrastructure to facilitate more efficient distribution, developed a complex communications system and reorganized independent divisions into a centrally controlled organization with a large central office and well-conceived division offices. He had a vision so strong that he started many projects that would take decades to complete. He led his team to develop manufacturing techniques that have yet to be rivaled even though quite a few years have gone by since he left office.

Who is this guy? Pachacutek. (Just like Prince and Madonna, he was so cool he’s mostly known by only one name). Pachacutek ruled the Inca nation in South America from 1438 to 1471. If you knew that name, you either have a master’s degree in Peruvian history or you’ve spent some time kicking around in Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu with a guide.

I’m not an expert on Peruvian or Incan history.  But while my wife and friends marveled at the architecture of Machu Picchu and the Inca nation of the 1400s, I drilled our guides about the guy who built all of this.

A few facts just so you know the story. A fractured Inca nation existed in South America with some humble dwellings. A group of approximately 40,000 Incas was led by a succession of kings who rapidly expanded the empire. A couple of boneheaded brothers eventually took the throne from their father and tried to be co-kings. I’ve written before about the folly of co-leaders, but suffice it to say that dog don’t hunt! Finally, along comes Pachacutek, a man with a vision and an ability to execute like perhaps no one before.

Pachacutek had some wicked smarts in the areas of architectural engineering, astronomy, astrology and leadership. Want a few examples?

  • As previously mentioned, he brought together (okay, maybe conquered, but let’s not quibble) many tribes across a wide geography. Doing this in the corporate environment with telephones, email, video and jets is difficult enough. Try doing it with smoke signals!
  • He oversaw building projects using masonry techniques that we marvel at today. Moving 50,000-pound rocks for miles and then crafting them into intricate shapes. Cheap labor and no OSHA program probably helped, but when you see these structures, you’re either thunderstruck or you spent your childhood playing video games.
  • These structures incorporated numerous significant features that perfectly align with magnetic north. They also have small windows that allow for sunlight to hit an alter at the exact time of summer and winter solstice. Oh, and by the way, some of them perfectly align with one another, though they’re many miles apart. Machu Picchu has a running water supply (gravity-fed) that has never required a weekend call to a plumber. Still works today! Imagine the planning required to do that!
  • Growing crops on a 40-degree pitch is a bitch! During Pachacutek’s reign, the Incas built many tiered farming terraces high in the mountains that had complex drainage systems to feed their people.
  • While Pachacutek ruled, he built a virtual highway system to connect South America’s many structures.
  • Pachacutek implemented a system of taxation to pay for all of this. (I wish I could send the IRS a bag of corn!)

I could go on, but you get the picture. No real tools, no wireless technology, no air travel, no iPads, no horses, no guns and in fact, no written language. Yet this guy unites the people of a huge geographic area and builds an aligned group of beautiful structures into a highly functioning organization that would be nearly impossible to do today.

If Pachacutek had a biographer following him during his reign, I suspect we’d know that this was a man of great vision, exceptional communication skills, superior strength of character and a sharp sword. What I’m most struck by is that the power of his ideas accomplished so many things. Execution? Yes, of course, with cheap labor. But the long-term vision for a great society (or company) is so hard to find today.

On the other hand, it only took the Spaniards a short while to destroy this organization when they showed up with horses and guns and a fixation on gold. My takeaway? The value of a long-term vision and exceptional execution with the realization that you must stay current with technology and techniques to keep the gold!

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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