What you can learn from history – the 3 stages of a Rising Empire (Part 1/2)

In 1976 Sir John Bagot Glubb, a British veteran soldier and scholar, wrote a great essay called the “Fate of Empires” in which he recognizes a few conspicuous similarities in the rise and fall of civilizations. He identified 6 stages in an Empire’s life-cycle, and wrote about the signs each stage would display. If you know these signs you can easily spot the countries that are rising or falling.

According to Sir Glubb, the average lifespan of an Empire has had an interesting average of 10 generations (almost 225 to 250 years). Today, the USA is almost that old and it’s very remarkable that the signs of a declining Empire, according to Sir Glubb, is beginning to show.

Civilizations lifetime (2)

On the other hand, countries like China, Germany, Japan and even Singapore which reformed during the period after the 2nd World War, are showing the signs of empires on the rise. Glubb’s article isn’t enough to determine which of these countries will dominate the world, but its easy to judge which of them are healthy and which of them will remain healthy well towards the future.

Just like a geographic empire, a business empire too goes through similar stages. It’s amazing that most of these signs are very comparable to stages that companies go through as well. This article will cover the first three out of the six stages – the rise of an empire. My next post will cover the latter three – the decline.

  1. The Age of Pioneers

In the beginning, a sudden outburst of energy and courage is displayed in a civilization which is otherwise considered inferior. These pioneers are not the most intellectually or financially equipped, yet their sheer will power to make a difference lets them conquer their fears allowing them to plunge forward against all odds.

Genghis Khan, the pioneer of the Mongol Empire, first had to unite the tribes that occupied Mongolia at the time. These tribes were comparable to barbarians, but Khan’s vision and spirit of change brought all these sects under one government to establish Mongolia. The unity and vision that Khan brought resulted in Mongolia expanding extremely fast into one of the largest empires at the time.

Similarly, the Arab empire at its infancy consisted of a bunch of Bedouin tribes in the dessert. These tribes used to fight each other and had different rules of governance. Because of this absence of collaboration Arabia was not known for much except for barbaric dessert people and merchants. During the 6th century though, all these tribes were united under Islam by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and within just 2 decades, the Islamic empire became the fastest expanding empire in the world. So much so that when the second Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, Umar Ibn Khattab (RA) governed the empire, the keys of Jerusalem were almost voluntarily handed to him. The governors of Jerusalem were so impressed by the vision and values of the Islamic empire that they did not have too much friction giving-in to the Muslims.

Looking at resent events Singapore is a clear example for this. After its independence, Singapore was a land almost abandoned by its neighbouring countries. Lee Kuan Yew struggled to get the Chinese, Malay, Muslim and other races of citizens to unite in the cause of making Singapore great. One of the first things he did was make English the national language – which bridged the barrier of communication. He then abolished any differentiation in race and caste. This set the foundation for people to work together towards rebuilding their country.

We can draw a parallel from this to someone who is inspired to start a company, write a novel or stand up for a revolutionary cause. Just like in any new endeavor the initial energy and excitement is so intense that it breaks through every negative sentiment that the current circumstances would throw at you. In this sense Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi were two men who united a whole community, who were once hopeless and in disarray, towards one vision. Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX), Sergey Brin (Google, Alphabet) were no different in their daring dreams for business. When nobody believed they could, they united a great team to get things done.

  1. The Age of Conquest

Fueled by energy, a new civilization would begin to discover or conquer new land, and in the process, they would destroy their so-called enemies who stand in their way. When the Mongolian empire conquered Bagdad, the Abbasid Caliphate that ruled the Islamic empire was at its peak. But the Mongol’s used the speed and accuracy of their horseback archers – an innovative approach to war that no other nation at the time used. This brought rapid victory for the Mongols, resulting in the collapse of the Abbasid Empire.

In the age of conquest, people show an immense sense of dedication to their country, work and their families. They would give their life in return for glory (not money). People in this era tend to believe that they have a sense of duty to work hard now, so that the future can be made better. Being true to one another, loyalty and teamwork get embedded in them because they are certain that these are the ingredients to their success.

Even in business, start-ups can defeat big players because of this. The best start-up is more agile than a large organization. While large players take safe steps, the small start-up innovates or takes risks. When bigger players are trying hard to “Engage” their proudly diverse staff, start-ups with a great leader have like-minded and passionate people who’ll stay long nights to figure out how to solve big problems. Having a small team with a great leader would mean all the attitudes needed to get through the tough times can be easily channeled through the team. Ultimately, with the right ingredients, a stagnant and slow-moving Goliath can easily be taken down by a tactical David-like entity.

The Age of Conquest to a business is comparable to a company that acquires smaller companies so it can grow. Facebook’s situation today would be an ideal example of this. The famous acquisition of WhatsApp conquered a larger market in the digital communications industry for Facebook. Similarly large companies get into mergers and joint ventures to increase their footprint. Mercedes-Benz manufacturer Daimler AG is a company that has gone through many mergers in the past. Unless a company acquires or merges with companies that complement its core business, it is very unlikely that it will grow further within its own market.

  1. The Age of Commerce

Empires that conquer vast spans of land automatically acquire massive opportunity for commerce. Merchants can trade goods within the empire more extensively because they have one single currency – therefore exchange rates and border taxes don’t exist. The variety of products is immense at this stage, so demand soars. Inevitably businesses thrive, infrastructure is improved rapidly, transportation becomes more efficient and governments focus on working for the economy with a clear vision about the future. As this wealth starts pouring into the empire, citizens begin to gain a sense of pride – much like Singapore and Germany today.

During the first half of the Age of Commerce people hold true to the values of their forefathers. Hard work, honesty, integrity and self-respect are kept at the highest regard. Boy’s schools are intentionally very rough in the first half of the Age of Commerce, because boys are expected to be men and take responsibility for their lives even at a young age. Children are constantly reinforced the values that can carry forward the empire’s legacy.

Today Germany’s vision for the future, according to many economists, is the most sustainable out of all the countries in the Europian Union. During 2015 and 2016, there were instances that the country produced more electricity than needed, which made them have to pay people to consume it. This surplus was a result of the country’s decades of investment in green energy solutions. Today Germany is by far the strongest and most stable economy in Europe.

Large tech companies like Cisco, Apple, Google, Oracle and Microsoft are examples of business empires at this stage. These companies are cash rich, talent rich and resource rich. People are proud to work for these companies and they love working hard. Naturally the best talent is attracted to them and everything they do is geared towards building the future.

But something happens during the height of the Age of Commerce. Unlike the generations before that didn’t place importance to wealth as much as they did to glory and adventure, people begin to get spoiled by power. Also diverse groups of people from different countries start migrating to the capital of the nation hoping for a better life. The economic success of the empire attracts a lot of attention, and makes everyone want to become allies. Eventually tensions start to rise between the original inhabitants of the nation’s capital and the migrants. Laziness slowly creeps into the once hardworking people of the empire because of the effortless power that it has. It is not too long until the pursuit of growth and progress is replaced by the vain greed for more and more money.

This turn eventually leads to the beginning of an empire’s decline – which I will post about next.


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