What Business Owners Can Learn from the Story of Modu

The value of loyalty.

Modu (234-174 BC) was the son of Touman, the leader of the Xiongnu tribal confederacy. For reference, this was all during the time of the fall of the Zhou dynasty, the warring states period, and the formation of the Han dynasty in China.

Modu lived quite an interesting life. At a young age, he was held as a political prisoner by the Yuezhi, a rival tribal confederacy to the Xiongnu. He was actually given as political prisoner by his father, who thought the arrangement would serve a dual purpose: first, to prevent conflict between the Xiongnu and the Yuezhi, and second, because Touman preferred his second son to the eldest, Modu, so he wanted Modu away and perhaps, killed.

In other words, Modu’s experience is pretty similar to the challenges millennials have faced in our reportedly oppressive 21st century world… (sarcasm)

Modu eventually escaped, and became aware of the facts of his political imprisonment and the plot of his father.

Modu, given his status as the heir, was placed at the head of a 10,000 strong cavalry unit. Wanting to never be in the position of being cast out and cast aside again, he sought a domination strategy, over the Xiongnu and all rivals.

He trained his soldiers, in both combat and loyalty. It is the latter that I will focus on. Loyalty. It’s often undervalued in business. But talent plus loyalty can create the largest empire the world had ever seen (I’m foreshadowing), and can help take a business from 1 to 10x.

Modu’s methods were brutal. He gave a single – SINGLE – command: “wherever my whistling arrow flies, you will draw your bow and shoot.” In other words, I set the direction, you charge without hesitation.

He tested his soldiers loyalty by shooting his whistling arrow at his own horse. Those who didn’t fire at his horse were killed.

He tested again by shooting his whistling arrow at his wife. Those who didn’t fire at his wife were killed.

Eventually, his soldiers got the message.

This obviously led to him inviting his plotting father, the leader, on a hunting trip, and firing his whistling arrow at him.

Modu became the leader that day.

WITHIN FIVE YEARS, he conquered all rival tribal confederacies on his borders and formed the Xiongnu Empire. This was, at the time, the largest empire in the history of the world. Larger than Alexander the Great.

Three years later, he capitulated the Han Empire and forced them into paying tribute (20% of all revenue from the entire empire) in perpetuity, among other gifts.

Two years later, he solidified his hold over more of his borders, and extended them, resulting in the Xiongnu improving, maintaining, and taxing, the Silk road. China didn’t even know about the Silk road at this time.

So, what can business owners take away from this?

First, and in case someone aims at framing my words in a ridiculous context, murder and brutality is unconscionable. Applying them to loyalty tests doesn’t change that. Modu’s methods are thankfully a part of our history, not our present.

The value of loyalty, however, should be measured appropriately. A loyal army for Modu was worth more than all else. He knew that hyper-loyalty to a singular vision was the pathway to unprecedented success. History has proven him correct, in the fact of his rule, the extent of his domain, and benefits it brought to his empire.

In business, loyalty has a similar value. This could also be understood as professional integrity.

As an example, “un-loyal” team members are people who are simultaneously looking for other jobs, perhaps with your competitors, and constantly keeping their options open. They drive a wedge between your vision and the energy of the office, or team environment, daily. They have a compounding-ly corrosive effect on every decision you make. You may even start to doubt yourself. A leader in public doubt is signaling to everyone, staff and customers alike, that the business is not stalwart in its brand and values.

If you hire and train loyal staff – professional integrity – you can build a seriously successful business.

Modu didn’t have the best trained army, or best equipped, or the best technology, or the best resources, and so on. He had the most loyal.

A loyal team can see a business, especially newer or rapidly evolving/growing businesses, through the difficulties and absurdities of that higher aim.

If you don’t have a higher aim – an absurdly high aim – in your business, why not?

Modu, a barbarian, effectively, created a bigger empire than Alexander and didn’t even know who Alexander was. He founded and secured the Silk road before anyone else knew what the Silk road was.