Vision and generosity

Brand strategy in the style of Saladin

It took me a while, but I’ve finally wrapped up The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, the (rather spectacular) new biography by Jonathan Phillips.

As well as being an excellent, and often very entertaining, examination of what Saladin accomplished (a lot), Phillips also tries to get under the skin of how Saladin succeeded. What combination of aptitude, context, and plain ol’ luck led to Saladin’s unprecedented success?

Phillips’ approach makes Sultan Saladin an excellent companion volume to John Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy. In the latter, Gaddis examines the decision-making of great leaders as they pursue their ambitions. Successful strategy, he posits, is about matching capacity to ambition; having a clear objective, while maintaining the flexibility for opportunism. Although Saladin is not one of Gaddis’ case studies, Sultan Saladin more than makes up for his absence.

Saladin, as Phillips demonstrates, is pursuing a ‘grand strategy’ for the entirety of his life and career: he is out to retake Jerusalem from the crusader kingdoms who had been occupying it, much to the Muslim world’s chagrin, for generations. Retaking Jerusalem is not ‘simply’ a military objective - it is a political, social, and cultural challenge of the highest order. To achieve it, Saladin needs to muster incredible resources, achieve political backing (from multiple, equally ambitious factions), and defeat a powerful, entrenched army that’s backed by the combined (if fractious) forces of the entire European continent.

It ain’t easy.

Gaddis would approve of Saladin’s methodical approach. The sultan’s entire career is built on a meticulous, step-by-step plan, carefully ensuring he has everything he needs to retake Jerusalem. His strategy not only involves mustering the financial and military resource, but also ensuring he has his social and religious ducks in a row. For what is, ostensibly, a military objective, there’s a lot of stakeholder management involved. Given the unstable nature of the 12th century landscape, Saladin can’t progress his ambitions without creating stability: warfare is lengthy and expensive. Saladin worked to make sure he had the secure base of power he needed before committing to the recapture of Jerusalem. At the same time, although Saladin had a fixed goal - a grand strategy - he also had the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities as they arose. He was dedicated to his vision, but not rigid in how he achieved it.

This is brutal paraphrasing, but Phillips boils Saladin’s success down to two key attributes: his vision and his generosity.

His vision, as noted above, was always clear. From his first campaigns, Saladin positioned himself - openly - as the champion of Islam, and the man that would retake Jerusalem. This was, in a sense, Saladin’s ‘brand’, and it shaped every aspect of his life. Saladin carefully chose how he dressed, how he behaved; how he conducted himself at all times. The language he used, the poetry he read, the public works he commissioned: everything he did (or didn’t do), as well as the public-facing justifications for his action (or inaction). Notably, and like all strong brands, Saladin’s vision was also limiting, it dictated what he couldn’t do as much as what he could. Saladin’s positioning as the ‘inevitable liberator of Jerusalem’ meant, for example, he had limited ability to campaign against other Muslim rulers in the region - as much as he might want to shore up his support, he couldn’t be both the saviour of Islam and someone marching to face fellow Muslims on the battlefield.

Saladin’s clarity and transparency of vision gave him a justification for everything he did; a ‘why’, if you will. It also created - in contemporary terms - an overarching ‘social purpose’. It allowed Saladin to pave over traditional hostilities and resentments, to create allies out of enemies, and to spread a persuasive, overarching narrative for his actions. Organisationally, it meant he could attract the best talent. As a brand, it kept the masses onside, attracted soldiers to his banner, and kept his many stakeholders appeased. Saladin’s objectives encapsulated their own - other regional or Muslim powers could trust him, because his interests were on display, and they aligned with their own. Which explains why his ‘brand’ was so important: it showed commitment to the cause, and that he could be trusted.

Generosity, Phillips explains, was a pervasive element of Saladin’s contemporary culture. Exchanges of gifts and lavish rewards were the diplomatic language of the time, establishing and maintaining relationships between rivals, subordinates, and even enemies. But Saladin took it to new heights. He was immensely generous, dealing out land and titles to his followers, and even positions of honour to his rivals. Phillips digs up deliciously extravagant details about the gifts - robes, jewels, horses, hawks - that pass between Saladin and his rivals, subordinates, and even enemies. Saladin’s generosity extended to the people as well: he reduced taxes, invested heavily in public services (mosques, schools and hospitals), and provided opulent feasts and celebrations. He was lavish with the bread and the circuses, even co-opting local festivals and celebrations to make them larger and more extravagant. At the same time, Saladin himself lived in respectable, but not opulent, comfort - as befitting his brand as Islam’s champion.

In many ways, the debts that arose from Saladin’s generosity only lengthened the execution of his grand strategy. By distributing his wealth so generously, Saladin was forced on additional, ‘incidental’ campaigns to gather more wealth, therefore adding more time and risk before he could retake Jerusalem. But Saladin’s generosity was a necessary part of building his capability. It helped him avoid many unnecessary (and brand-destroying) conflicts with other regional powers, it gave him a ‘competitive advantage’ over his rivals when wooing third parties, and it helped him retain his power base (to an unprecedented level, especially given the era). Saladin’s generosity made being on his side appealing.


Let’s go back to thinking about ‘brand Saladin’. In 2020 terms (not 1180 ones), Saladin has the ideal combination of purpose and benefit:

  • There’s an long-term purpose - a clear, motivating vision

  • There’s a short-term benefit - a personal, immediate reward

By having a purpose, a company attracts passionate individuals, fosters a sense of unity, and distinguishes itself from the competition. I chose this particular water bottle because it benefits orphaned pandas.

The benefit is equally as important, especially as retention becomes a factor. Rome wasn’t built in a day; Jerusalem certainly wasn’t liberated in one. You join Saladin because you share his cause; you stay because he pays his bills on time. Just as you can’t plan a revolution on an empty stomach, you can’t retake Jerusalem if your checks keep bouncing. It doesn’t matter if the pandas are happy if my water bottle has a hole in the bottom.

We see this tension now more than ever. Consumers (and staff, and shareholders) increasingly demand that companies have purpose - a moral vision that goes above and beyond providing their day to day function. But, at the same time, consumers (and staff and shareholders) still want their water bottles to hold water. Also, paychecks. Be good, but hit the quarterly numbers.

What can we learn from Saladin?

The first lesson is that Saladin didn’t treat this as a ‘balance’ - he refused to compromise on the quality of his benefits or the scale of his ambition. His soldiers or allies never got ‘less’ by signing on with him. Even if it meant a delay in achieving his ultimate ambition, Saladin understood the importance of providing a tangible, practical benefit. He designed a long-term strategy that focused on achieving the vision without insisting that stakeholders sacrifice: it took more time and more effort, but he got there in the end.

The second lesson is that Saladin made his vision tangible through his behaviour. He was not retrofitting a mission statement, or bolting on ‘brand values’ midway through his campaign. His ambition - his purpose - was transparent, clear from the outset, and woven into every act he took. Even when Saladin wasn’t taking direct steps towards Jerusalem, he was acting like he was. His behaviours, his attitudes, his values - he made his vision into something visible and trustworthy, a way of life that everyone could witness and respect.

The difficulty, of course, is that most brands are already in motion - whether that’s to save the world or provide water bottles. The opportunity to design a long-term strategy, with both short- and long-term objectives in mind, from scratch, is surprisingly rare. Especially when, as noted above, you need to hit those quarterly numbers.


More to ponder:


I normally ring in New Year’s with a newsletter that celebrates failure, but that seems unnecessary this year. I can’t even be flippant about ‘making it to 2021’, as so many did not. Please take care of yourself and those around you.