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Attila's leadership style


Leadership has no boundaries. A reputable corporation may have good leaders, a street gang may have good leaders, and a barbarian horde may also have good leaders. No matter the organization, there is a need to develop good leaders that will further the cause.

Attila the Scourge of God (Flagellum Dei) (404-453 CE), also called Attila, Atli, Etzel by the Germans, and Ethele by the Hungarians lived from and was King of the Huns from 434-453 CE. Attila was a member of the ruling family of the Huns, a nomadic Asian people who spread from the Caspian steppes throughout the Roman Empire in search of global conquest. By 432 CE, the Huns had gained so much power that they were receiving a large annual tribute from Rome.


Attila, the son of King Mundzuk, was born in a chariot somewhere in the valley of the Danube and he could trace his ancestry for thirty-two generations. This family history was what maintained the integrity of the horde’s bloodline and its distinctly Mongol characteristics. Learning first to ride on the back of sheep, Attila later developed extraordinary horsemanship and became skilled in the use of the bow, lance, lariat, sword, and whip, as was expected of his noble position. He was proud of his personal strength and had a great disdain for the weak.

Attila's father died while he was still young. Atilla became critical of Rugila’s, an uncle who was the successor to the throne, policy of entering the horde into the service of foreign nations, whom Attila thought the Huns could easily defeat.

It was customary in ancient Rome to hold hostages to ensure treaties were upheld. So, at age twelve, Attila was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of Honorius. He was educated and trained by the Romans and he also learned their strengths and weaknesses. Once released, Attila vowed to conquer the nation that had held him.

The Hun nation was comprised of various un-united tribes that were led by chieftains who were soldiers of fortune with no alliance to a Hun king. Attila knew he would need to pull them together if he was to defeat the Romans, so he began renewing and de¬veloping relationships with tribal chieftains. During hunt¬ing expeditions throughout the Hunnish territories, he gained the loyalty of these chieftains through emo¬tional appeal, arousing their warrior instincts, and whetting their appetites for easily gained glory and pillage.

After the death of his brother Bleda during a hunt, Attila became king over the tribe in the valley of the Danube and used his leadership skills to unite the other tribes and form his great army. He solicited advice from the warriors as well as the chieftains and persuaded the chieftains that there was more to be gained by working together than by fighting one another or acting as soldiers of fortune for the Romans.

Attila reigned over what was then Europe's largest empire, from 434 CE until his death. His empire stretched from Germany and the Netherlands to the Ural River and from the Danube River to Poland and Estonia. He and his horde were feared throughout Europe as sackers of cities. Attila invaded the Balkans twice and besieged Constantinople in the second invasion. He marched through Gaul (modern day France) as far as Orleans before being defeated at the Battle of Chalons. By 451 CE, Attila's horde consisted of 700,000 warriors and was intent on ransacking Rome itself. In 452 CE, he drove the western emperor Valentinian III from his capital at Ravenna.

The Huns had a reputation for cruelty and barbarism. They ate their meat raw and had a strong appetite for murder and mayhem. No one was allowed to look Attila in the eyes, not even one of his 400 wives. Much of the fear the Hun’s instilled came not so much from their actual exploits, but from their reputation as barbarians.

In 453 CE, even though he already had many other wives, Attila took another bride, named Ildico. He spent the wedding day drinking and partying, and then took his new bride to bed that night in drunken lust. The next morning, he was found drowned in own nosebleed.

Not only did Atilla not trust his own sons to take over his empire, he had not established a successor to his throne; he believed a successor could be chosen in time. However, while his sons quarreled amongst themselves as to who would lead the Huns, in 454 CE, the Ostrogoths and other Germanic tribes revolted against the Huns and the Huns were defeated.

Though Attila’s empire died with him, he is remembered as the epitome of cruelty and barbarism. However, some histories lionize him as a great and noble king, and he plays major roles in three Norse sagas.

Leadership secrets

In the 1980’s, Wess Roberts’ published a book called Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. The book pretends to be a collection of campfire stories told by Attila while training his chieftains to be better leaders. While there is no historical evidence to substantiate this, it does make a good story. This book is legendary amongst students of leadership and management; rumor has it that Ross Perot bought all copies of the first printing in 1985.

Some of the leadership secrets from the book include:
  • You must want to be in charge. You must be ruthlessly ambitious. Do not appear overeager, just extremely determined to succeed under any circumstances, fair or unfair. This attitude will inspire confidence in those you lead.
  • Always appear to be the one in charge. Dress in ways that show your high position and distinguishes you from the masses. Be first in everything, but do not appear pompous.
  • Make people do things your way, not their way. Make them adjust or adapt to you. Express this as the way things are going to be, or pretend it is the way things have always been. Refuse to acknowledge any other way of doing things other than the way you do things.
  • Never tolerate a lack of morale or respect. Terminate people at the first sign of disrespect for the common good. Do not allow uncontrolled celebration, pillaging and looting are only useful if done in the name of nationalism.
  • Never tolerate anyone with his own ambitions. Cunning people are dangerous, especially new people who have just joined the organization. Encourage people to lose their ambition and become team players. Never reward any one person for what is a common effort.
  • Perpetuate a legend or reputation for yourself. Find out whatever it is that your worst enemy calls you, and then try to live up to it. This will be an advantage whenever you need to use your power, and it will accumulate minor benefits to you along the way.
  • Pick your enemies wisely. Do not consider all opponents or everyone you argue with as enemies. These are accidental enemies. Choose your enemies with purpose. They may be people you have friendly relations with, and in fact, you should let them think of you as a friend, all the while never telling them anything, and lulling them into a state of complacency and acting prematurely.
  • Expect continual improvement. Encourage learning and innovation among those you lead by creating competition among them. Never allow them to wander aimlessly. Regularly upgrade your standards of performance.
  • Time your decisions. Never rush decisions, unless necessary, but time them so there is little time to do anything else. This ensures that even less-than-perfect decisions will be accepted and followed.
  • Exploit the desire to enjoy the spoils of war. Exploit the desire for short-term gains. Grant small rewards for small tasks, but reserve large rewards for large tasks. Never underestimate the ability to buy obedience.
  • Only engage in battles you can win. Use diplomacy, negotiation, or other techniques of conflict in battles you cannot win.

Importance of training

Attila saw that chieftains and warriors rewarded themselves with the booty they obtained from war, but he also saw that they also found reward in greater responsibility and training. He realized that training a warrior for a task deemed out of his position instills trust and acceptance. He also recognized that each chieftain had experience and qualities which made the kingdom stronger, so he began using cross training to reaffirm unity.

Attila saw that strong chieftains also have strong weaknesses and that it was his duty is to cultivate their strengths. He recognized that his men learned more from failure than they did from success; that they learned much faster when faced with adversity. Therefore, he delegated to chieftains and gave them greater responsibilities to strengthen their leadership abilities.

Attila recognized that training was essential to war and that it tended to be disregarded in times that are more peaceful, so he stressed training always. His philosophy was that teachable skills were for developing warriors, while learnable skills were for chieftains. Chieftains assigned jobs to warriors that allowed them to grow and develop, gave them deadlines, and constantly inspect their work.
Although warriors prefer independence, Attila convinced them to work cooperatively. One warrior’s bad habits can infect other warriors and one warrior’s good habits can inspire others. Attila had chieftains reward habits they wished their tribes to adopt. A warrior never abandons his or her cause, so a wise chieftain makes sure his warriors support the tribe's cause.

Other points

  • Lasting bonds between chieftains and their warriors are not forged on the battlefield; they develop over time as everyday exchanges between chieftains and warriors.
  • Outstanding warriors have a natural arrogance that must be disciplined to benefit the tribe. If a chieftain ignores top performers, they will lose their winning edge. If a chieftain ignores weak performers, they will never develop a winning edge.
  • A tribe performs at its best when everyone is assigned the tasks he or she does best for the tribe. If a warrior fails to achieve expected results, it is because the chieftain failed to convey his expectations to him.
  • If warriors achieve everything expected of them, it was because the chieftains had set goals that were too low.
  • If training ceases when all goals have been reached, the horde will be set for failure.
  • Above all things, a Hun must be loyal. However, disagreement is not necessarily disloyalty.
  • Chieftains must have courage, be fearless, have the fortitude to carry out assignments, and be willing to accept the risks of leadership.
  • Leaders must have a desire and a commitment to lead.
  • Each higher level of leadership places increasing demands on chieftains so they must have the physical and mental stamina to deal with it.
  • Chieftains must develop an appreciation for and an understanding of the values of the cultures, beliefs, and traditions or their enemies.
  • Good leaders observe and anticipate, and are decisive.
  • The timing of recommendations and actions is essential to their success.  
  • All levels of an organization must be held accountable and all participants must accept full responsibility for their actions.
  • Leaders must be credible. Their words and actions must be believable to both friend and foe.
  • The weak persist only when things go their way; the strong persist until the job is done.
  • If a chieftain cannot be depended on, relieve him. A king cannot observe each action of his subordinate chieftains; therefore, he must rely on them to get things done.
  • Leaders are stewards. Subordinates are not to be abused; they are to be guided, developed, and rewarded for their performance. Punishment is to be reserved as a last resort and is seldom used.

  • Roberts, Wess Ph.D. Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Warner Books, Inc. 1987.
  • Roberts, Wess Ph.D. Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun. New York: Del Publishing. 1993.
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