Legends of leadership and management – Akbar the Great (1556 – 1605)


He never had a formal education; was brought up by his guardian while his father struggled to retain his position, yet Emperor Akbar the Great boasted of a 21% contribution to the World GDP between 1556 and 1605 when he headed India Inc. as its Emperor!

The vision and its execution: Akbar has a vision of a strong and lasting Mughal kingdom over India. Instead of focusing just on the military to achieve this goal, Akbar expanded his focus to socio-economic and political areas. The end result was a strong and vibrant economy in a secure and peaceful state. For this, Akbar the Great makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management from history!

A secular state: Very early in his reign Akbar realized that he could not establish a permanent and stable rule in India without the co-operation and acceptance of the majority Hindu population. So instead of establishing a theocratic Islamic State, Akbar established a secular state. But he went several steps further and ensured the nobility and theologians understood and adopted the concept of secularism. In 1575, he built a hall called the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) at Fatehpur Sikri, to which he invited theologians, philosophers and selected courtiers renowned for their intellectual achievements to discuss and debate matters of spirituality and religion. Alfred Tennyson’s poem Akbar’s Dream explicitly lauds the Ibadat Khana while decrying 19th century British intolerance.


Akbar’s council of ministers and advisors was a blend of intellect and diversity. It was a collection of artists, intellectuals and statesmen, transcending religion and ethnicity. His passion for knowledge and interest in learning from great minds attracted him to men of genius, from the Hindu Rajput General Man Singh to the Moslem historian Abul Fazal.

Akbar was so liked by Hindus for his secular outlook that there are eulogies in his name in several religious hymns.

Defense/Military Organization – a very agile setup: The Mughal Empire was in a fledgling state when Akbar ascended the throne. There was a need for expansion as well as establishment of absolute authority upon the existing kingdom. Akbar recognized the need for a strong military to achieve this goal and strengthened it both at the hardware and resource levels. Instead of maintaining a mammoth centralized force, Akbar conceived and implemented the Mansabdari system. Under this system, each officer in the army was assigned a rank (mansabdar), and assigned a number of cavalry that he had to supply to the imperial army. The top three commanding ranks were responsible for 7000 to 10000 troops. As a result, majority of the troops were supplied by the mansabdars, the central army on its own was very small. Akbar also implemented an excellent system of performance management which entailed promotions and salary hikes based on merit to ensure a very high quality cavalry.

The high quality cavalry was further supplemented with the latest artillery. Akbar sought the help of Ottomans and Europeans in procuring firearms and artillery. Mughal firearms in the time of Akbar came to be far superior to anything that could be deployed by potential enemies – regional rulers, tributaries and landlords. Such was the impact of these weapons that Akbar’s court historian Abul Fazl, says “with the exception of Turkey, there is perhaps no country in which its guns has more means of securing the Government than [India].”

Building a vibrant economy: The reign of Akbar is characterized by commercial expansion. The Mughal government encouraged traders, provided protection and security for transactions, and levied a very low custom duty to stimulate foreign trade. Bands of highway police called rahdars were enlisted to patrol roads and ensure safety of traders. Akbar also made efforts to improve roads to facilitate the use of wheeled vehicles through the Khyber Pass – the most popular route of traders and travelers in journeying from Kabul into Mughal India. He also strategically occupied the northwestern cities of Multan and Lahore in the Punjab and constructed forts near the crossing of the Grand Trunk Road and the Indus river, as well as a network of smaller forts called thanas throughout the frontier, to secure the overland trade with Persia and Central Asia.

Land revenue reform – use of data and analytics: Land revenue was the chief source of revenue for the government during that era and Akbar tasked his Finance Minister, Todar Mal to come up with a robust, reliable and just system of land revenue. And the outcome was one of the highlights of Akbar’s reign. The three main features of the land revenue system were: (a) Survey and measurement of land, (b) Classification of land on the basis of its productivity and (c) The assessment of land-revenue. The classification and assessment of land was based on data over a period of ten years. This ensured fair and tiered taxation based on past productivity and prices.

Akbar was a great commander, a team player, a leader with a vision and a brilliant manager. And it is no surprise that he also made it to Time Magazine’s Top 25 Political Icons of all time!

Which other figures from history were iconic leaders and managers? Do share your picks


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