Not many men flourish between brutality & unity in the manner King Shaka Zulu had done. This is one man in the history books seen as a villain for ending anyone that opposed his power but also as a hero for attempting a union that made the Zulu kingdom a force to be reckoned with. So if you are caught in both worlds of who Shaka Senzangakhona really was, then know that one thing remains true, he was a leader with many traits that could apply in today’s modern world of business, management, coaching, etc. Sometimes there is a lot even a villain can teach you, & the leadership skills shown by King Shaka Zulu could be a guide for anyone interested in being a conqueror.
As king, he led his people to victory over and over again up until his assassination. But what can we learn from Shaka Zulu? How was a young boy born in present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province, able to bring enemies to their knees?
Shaka Zulu always opted for a more aggressive option but it is not his swords or spears that have been recognized today, it’s his strategies that made him arguably one of the greatest and feared monarchs in the history of the Zulu Kingdom.
The Early Life Of King Shaka Zulu
King Shaka was birthed in the lunar month of uNtulikazi (July) 1987 near a village now known as Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province. Shaka was regarded as an illegitimate son of Zulu Chief Senzangakhona who died in 1816. Young Shaka was made to stay with his mother in her settlement allowing his half-brother Sigujana to assume power as the legitimate heir to the Zulu throne. At the time young Shaka stayed with his mother, he was initiated into a fighting unit called ibutho lempi, where he served as a warrior under Dingiswayo.
It was from a very young age that Shaka understood the concept of battle & war. This knowledge would eventually come in handy when the throne passed to his brother. Shaka made sure his brother did not rule for long. And when it was time, Dingiswayo of the Mthethwa Empire handed Shaka a regiment to launch a bloodless coup that was eventually accepted by the Zulu people.
Shaka Zulu’s Reign
That day marked the beginning of a new Zulu order lead by Shaka Zulu, although he remained linked to the Mthethwa Empire. A year later Dingiswayo was killed in a battle at the hands of Zwide, another powerful chief of the Nwandwe nation. These, however, meant that power over both the Zulu and Mthethwa Empire now lay in the hands of King Shaka. But first, Shaka refined his military system, equipped them with new weapons, and revolutionalised the art of war. He reformed what remained of the mthathewa and his tribe for a Zulu Civil War between 1819-1820. The death of Dingiswayo hurt the King of the Zulu kingdom so bad that he swore to avenge his old friend. The details of this particular retaliation vary, but history says in the Civil War, Zwide barely escaped Shaka while his mother did not.
Shaka once said “Strike an enemy once and for all. Let him cease to exist as a tribe or he will live to fly in your throat again” and he lived by those words & showed no mercy. Zwide’s mother, Ntombazi, was a Sangoma (Zulu Seer or Shaman), she was killed in a rather vengeful manner. King Shaka was said to have locked Zwide’s Mother in a house and placed hyenas inside; they made a meal of her flesh and by morning the king burnt down the house. Despite carrying out this gruesome act, King Shaka still went on his pursuit of Zwide; they finally met in 1825 in Pongola. Pongola is near the present-day border of KwaZulu –Natal, South Africa. Again, Shaka was victorious in battle but his army suffered severe losses, which included the life of his military commander, Umgobhozu Ovela Entabeni.
The more the King became victorious in battle, the more his people feared and respected him. Even more, they respected his ideology of making his people more powerful. King Shaka taught his people that the quickest way to become powerful was by conquering other tribes. He and his compadres would go on to apply this new Warrior outlook; one that worked time and time again. We can only guess at what the king would have done next if not for his death.
Leadership Skills Shown By King Shaka Zulu
During Shaka’s reign as king, he implemented very unique strategic skills that always made him stand out over his opponents. King Shaka although brutal, was also a thinker and if we look closely at everything King Shaka Zulu did and achieved as a Monarch & Military Chief we can learn a lot. We may not be brutal or hang traitors by the wire, but we could adopt certain ideas into our own world of business; management, or certain professions. Here are some of the leadership traits shown by King Shaka Zulu:
1) Improve On Existing Status Quo
This is one of the first leadership skills shown by King Shaka Zulu. When Shaka wanted to go on a quest to conquer and gain control over other tribes, he changed the norm. King Shaka knew they were going to offend a lot of people and kingdoms, so he thought of a better way to prepare.
King Shaka was said to have wanted more from battle and didn’t like the weapons the Zulu’s used. Initially, they made use of long-throwing assegai (long spears that warriors throw from a certain distance to defeat opponents). King Shaka is credited to have replaced the assegai with a new version of it called; the iklwa (a short stabbing spear that had a long, and sword-like spearhead). This new weapon gave them a huge advantage over rivals who could only throw their spears and avoid hand-to-hand combat.
Although, the traditional long spears were not totally abolished. At the start of every battle, the long throwing spears were used as initial missiles to disorient the enemy. After contact is made the short stabbing spears would be used for close combat. One interesting thing King Shaka also did was to create a new type of shield made of cowhide. The king taught his warriors how to use the shield to hook enemies to the right, exposing their ribs for fatal stabs.
The Bull Horn Formation
Aside from the fact that the king introduced new types of weapons, he also created a new technique for battle. This technique showed its superiority at the hands of its owners against rivals. The bull formation comprises three parts:
This is the main force of the attack made-up of warriors who specialized in melee combat, and involved senior veterans. They close down the enemy and pinned them in a tight position.
While “the chest” pins down the enemy, “the horns” are structured to flank them on both sides and encircle the rivals in conjunction with “the chest” launching a brutal attack on the enemy. “The horns” comprised of young and fast juniors. Speed was needed for the flank strategy
A huge number of reserve warriors called “the lions” patiently waited behind “the chest”. These reserve warriors were instructed to always turn their back to the battle in order not to lose any confidence. Their purpose is to provide support if the enemy ever broke out of the encirclement provided by “the chest” & “the flank”.
2) Working with what you have (Quality not Quantity)
King Shaka wasn’t gifted with a lot of followers at the start. He showed everything a leader needed to work with the barest minimum. In fact, the population of Nwandwe was more than the fighters Shaka initially controlled when he dethroned his brother.
The king worked with the numbers he was given up until he combined forces with the Mathethwa Empire. King Shaka kept multiplying his forces by conquering small tribes & eventually everyone felt terrorized. A leader works with what he has and makes the best out of it.
3) Be Disciplined
The King had the habit of reminding his soldiers what would happen to them or their families if they did not do well in battle. That way he created a dogged desire in the hearts of his people to always do their best. If a man was observed showing the slightest hesitation about approaching enemy lines, he would be executed even before the end of the battle. And if a regiment were to be defeated by any means, soldiers go back home to find that their belongings or families have been dealt with. This ensured that the Zulu soldiers hardly lost a fight or ran away during one.
This is discipline, maybe not the right way to instill it. The King as earlier stated ruled with an iron fist and he was disciplined. A leader mustn’t be aggressive but he must be disciplined, and it must show in his followers. This was one of the leadership skills shown by King Shaka Zulu.
4) Understand the term “Unity”
If there was one thing the King understood and kept preaching to his people, it would be the concept of unity. King Shaka Zulu spread the word to his people endlessly about how they could become more powerful by conquering other cities and taking control. This method amassed more Zulu forces. The ones that wanted to survive joined him and the ones that preferred death over loyalty joined their ancestors. King Shaka understood that he could not take a small army across South Africa so he divided and conquered, using unity as a tool for conquest. King Shaka Zulu certainly understood that a leader must recognize that more can be achieved together.
5) Nothing is impossible
From being an illegitimate son to a King, verily King Shaka didn’t believe in impossibilities, why should you? He was made to stay with his mother and not even grow as an heir to the throne. He came back with an army to lay a bloodless coup. No matter what happens, a leader must understand that everything could change and nothing is impossible. Not for King Shaka Zulu and definitely not for you.
6) Be Tough & Train Your Followers To Be Like You
It is reported that King Shaka Zulu made his fighters walk barefooted through raids. And those who refused to go without sandals were killed. King Shaka was also reported to drill his troops, in marches that could cover more than 80 kilometers a day. He also drilled his soldiers to carry out encirclement tactics.
Some reports debunked these details, we do know that King Shaka was a tough monarch who trained his warriors in the same manner. Every Zulu warrior represented the King well in battle. A leader must do the same to make sure his followers know what he knows, maybe not everything. But a follower must be able to represent the boss in his absence. This protects both the leader and what he stands for.
Some might say King Shaka Zulu was a terrible king due to his level of brutality for both his enemies and his people. But there’s a lot we can learn from a villain. The leadership skills shown by King Shaka Zulu could come in handy in the modern world. Maybe in a less brutal manner, but make no mistake Shaka Zulu was a chief, a military head, a king, and one of the most influential monarchs of all time in the Zulu Kingdom. Shaka Zulu was a leader.