Saladin’s achievements – uniting much of the Middle East under one vast Muslim empire, and crushing a crusader army in 1187 – mark him down as one of the most accomplished rulers in history. Here are the eight secrets behind his incredible success...


Saladin’s CV

Born: To a family of Kurdish ancestry, in Tikrit (modern-day Iraq), in c1137/38

Best remembered for: Defeating a crusader army at the 1187 battle of Hatt in (in present-day Israel), and seizing Jerusalem from the crusaders later that year

Other key achievements: Establishing a mighty Muslim empire that encompassed today’s Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Yemen

Revered by: The Muslim world, especially his fellow Sunnis. But he was also greatly respected by his sworn enemies, the crusaders, who, it’s said, regarded him as highly as their own leaders

Died: Of a fever in Damascus in 1193

Buried: In the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus


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An inspirational ruler and a warrior uncle were key to Saladin’s rise

One key to Saladin’s leadership skills surely lay in his childhood. This is an assumption, for almost nothing is known about the young Saladin. But something can be deduced from his later success. He was raised in a violent world, yet gained emotional security from religion and family.

In Outliers, his 2008 book analysing attributes that distinguish the most successful people from the rest, Malcolm Gladwell points out that a key element in their rise to greatness is a mentor, a guiding light, someone who provides both an example and a helping hand.

If his father provided for his emotional security, then Saladin’s two mentors were Shirkuh, his hard-fighting uncle, and Nur al-Din, the inspirational ruler of Aleppo and Mosul – anti-crusader, would-be unifier of Islam, and Saladin’s master and employer.

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It was Nur al-Din who gave Saladin his big break, sending him off with an army to Egypt, his idea being that Egypt’s wealth would provide a basis for unifying Islam and confronting the crusaders. Without Shirkuh and Nur al-Din – one a campaigner, the other a ruler – Saladin might have remained insignificant.


Show no mercy

One of the most effective weapons in Saladin’s armoury was the capacity to brutalise

Leadership is often equated with ruthlessness. One exponent was the Chinese theorist of leadership, Lord Shang, writing when China was torn by rival states in about 400 BC. He advised rulers that human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous and foolish, and the only way to deal with them is to entice, terrify, reward and punish. Two thousand years later, Machiavelli, confronted by Italy’s warring mini-states, made the same point: only the ruthless exercise of power can guarantee the continuity of the state, in peace.

In some circumstances, Saladin too knew how to use force, even brutality. His new position in Egypt presented problems. Sunni Syrians and Shia Egyptians were old rivals. Each despised the other. Each had a caliph. In Egypt Saladin could rule only by force and duplicity. He collaborated in the murder of the vizier (high-ranking minister) Shawar, built up a formidable army, and bullied the young Egyptian caliph Al-Adid into naming him vizier with power over both government and armed forces. He also engineered plots, arrested and tortured the plotters, and dismissed troublesome members of the Egyptian army and palace guards. Then he ended the Cairo-based caliphate, scattered the caliph’s library, divided Cairo’s palaces among his family, crushed revolts – even crucified two ringleaders in central Cairo – and spread his control to Yemen.

Later, after the battle of Hattin, one of his captives was French crusader Raynald of Châtillon, a man he had sworn to kill in revenge for his brutal and treacherous behaviour. In one account, Saladin killed him with one stroke of his sword and beheaded him. Soon afterwards, volunteers executed a further 200 captives, while Saladin looked on approvingly.


Have a cause worth fighting for

Saladin’s rallying cry – holy war – proved irresistible to thousands of his followers

From his youth, Saladin was in some sense programmed for leadership, which he seized in Egypt. For his next move, he needed to inspire. One vital element for a leader – some say the most vital – is the agenda, the vision. Effective leaders need a noble cause, something bigger than the leader himself.

As psychologist Daniel Goleman and his co-authors comment in Primal Leadership (2013), those with vision “exude resonance: They have genuine passion for their mission, and that passion is contagious.”

Saladin’s vision was powerful and simple: an Islamic world unified and free from the non-Islamic, anti-Islamic crusaders. He did not even have to originate it. The cause had been in the air for a generation, since the arrival of the crusaders in 1096. His mentor, Nur al-Din, had preached jihad – or holy war – against them.


Be prepared to negotiate

Saladin quickly learned that he couldn’t always bludgeon his way to power

But now what? Egypt’s wealth was the key to power, but the door to Islamic unity and jihad was Syria. By about 1170, it was obvious that Saladin was a rival to his master, Nur al-Din. There could have been civil war – except that the two shared the same vision, and both held back from outright confrontation for three years.

Then Nur al-Din’s death gave Saladin a chance to claim his former master’s realm. This would not be easy, because major cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Homs, Hama, Baalbek – were held by Nur al-Din’s heirs or allies. It was now that Saladin’s leadership skills came to the fore. He became an expert in what leadership theorists call ‘soft power,’ in which persuasion trumps force.

His task was to usurp power, while pretending deference to Nur al-Din’s lineage. There was no point forcing himself on other Muslims, if by doing so he turned them from rivals into enemies. If he besieged a city, he did so with restraint.

In victory, he took care not to pursue, slaughter and pillage. He often wrote to the caliph in Baghdad, asking for his backing.

It took 10 years of steps forward, steps back, negotiations, appeals and shows of force followed by displays of magnanimity – but in the end it worked. The caliph granted him a ‘diploma of investiture’, and Saladin became ruler of Syria as well as Egypt. He had the legitimacy he needed to turn his unified army against the crusaders, achieving his stunning victory in the battle of Hattin in 1187 and following this up by seizing Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his soft leadership was that he applied it in his dealings with his enemies. He probed, retreated, consulted, negotiated, exchanged prisoners, changed his mind with changing circumstances, and dealt courteously with his enemies. He acted like this partly because that was his character, and partly because it worked, saving much fruitless fighting and unnecessary losses.

Saladin took up the cry: “Do battle not for my cause, but for God’s cause.”


Put your life on the line

To inspire true loyalty, Saladin was prepared to go where only the bravest would follow

Another element of Saladin’s rule was his readiness to share adversity. The nature of revolutionary leadership demands it.

In the words of the American political scientist James MacGregor Burns: “The leaders must be absolutely dedicated to the cause and able to demonstrate that commitment by giving time and effort to it, risking their lives, undergoing imprisonment, exile, persecution and continual hardship.” Saladin risked his life in battle, and at the age of 50 almost died from disease caught while campaigning.

Shared suffering does not guarantee success, but a refusal to do so may open the door to failure. Saladin is in good company. Successful revolutionary leaders who suffered for their cause include Alexander, Jesus, Mohammed, Genghis Khan, Mao, Lenin, Castro and Mandela.


Live a simple, austere life

The most powerful man in the Muslim world resisted the temptation to amass riches

Embracing danger is one way of demonstrating your willingness to share your followers’ pain. Another is to refuse the urge to amass riches. This is a rare quality, because it works best in combination with adversity. Kublai Khan ruled China with a massive display of wealth. However, his grandfather Genghis Khan, from whom Kublai inherited a vision of world rule, made a virtue of austerity, adopting the guise of a simple Daoist sage: “In the clothes I wear or the meats I eat, I have the same rags and the same food as the cowherd or the groom.”

Saladin too considered his followers before himself, so much so that in life he was often rebuked by his treasurer, and in death he had nothing to his name but his sword, coat of mail and horse. He built himself no palaces, and wanted only a small mausoleum.


Keep your promises

Trust was the key to building a stable alliance against the crusader armies

Saladin kept his word. Lord Shang and Machiavelli were all for duplicity, if it served the leader’s purpose. That was not Saladin’s way. Keeping promises is a fundamental attribute of good leadership, for without it the trust of allies and those further down the chain of command vanishes, morale plummets, and concerted action becomes impossible. This creates what Daniel Goleman (see no 3) refers to as a “toxic organisation”, in which “resonance” gives way to “dissonance”. “If we refuse what we have promised and are not generous with the benefits,” said Saladin, “no one will ever trust us again.”


Extend the hand of friendship

The great nemesis of the crusaders was capable of surprising acts of generosity towards them

Despite his commitment to jihad, Saladin retained his respect for individuals – as is proved in the following incident, which happened in the summer of 1187, between the battle of Hattin in July and the seizure of Jerusalem in October.

Balian of Ibelin, head of one of the most eminent of crusader families, escaped from Hattin and took refuge in Tyre. With Saladin’s army controlling the surrounding territory, Balian’s wife, Maria, was stuck in Jerusalem. Balian sent a message to Saladin, asking to be allowed to get her. Saladin agreed – on the understanding that Balian spent only one night in Jerusalem.

But when Balian arrived in the city he found it leaderless. He stayed to lead its defence, sending profuse apologies to Saladin for breaking his promise. Saladin chivalrously accepted the apology, and then sent an escort to convey Maria to Tyre, while her husband set about finishing Jerusalem’s defences. Such actions won Saladin the admiration of his Christian enemies, who came to think of him as more worthy than their own leaders.

John Man is a historian and travel writer, whose books include The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan, His Heirs and the Founding of Modern China (Bantam Press, 2014).


This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine