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Diplomacy, Imagination and Business: The Marco Polo Story

By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Executive President of IE University

Despite threats over free trade and current anti-globalization moves, the World is irreversibly integrated as regards business. Today, technology allows any wise entrepreneur from any country to virtually target the entire planet with a new app or service offered on the web. At the same time, new generations of entrepreneurs and business executives feel themselves not just nationals of their native countries, but also citizens of the world and interact in this spirit through global networks.

An early exemplar of global citizenship was Marco Polo, a 13th century Venetian trader and explorer, author of “Description of the world“, which represents one of the first narrations of the Far East and other world regions through Western civilization eyes. The book was dictated by Marco Polo to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello de Pisa, after been incarcerated together at a battle between Genoa and Venice. “Prisons favor literature, remember Verlaine and Cervantes” once said Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian celebrated writer.

Polo claims in the prologue that he is the man that has traveled more extensively since the World’s Creation, a title nobody dared to question at that time. The book is particularly meaningful today, when literature on Asian culture and business is experiencing a renaissance, given the pivotal weight of China and India in the world’s economy and international politics. Interestingly, the author’s admiration for the wonders that he finds reveals how advanced were the civilizations on the other extreme of the World. 

The book is interesting from a business perspective at least on three accounts.

-First, it shows how business promotes geographical exploration and knowledge of foreign cultures. The protagonists, both Marco Polo, along with his father and his uncle, “were men of good family, remarkable for their wisdom and foresight. After taking things over, they decided that they would go across the Black Sea in the hope of a profitable venture” as we can read in the first pages.

Indeed, they went far. From Crimea they moved to modern day Uzbekistan, and further to Cathay (today’s China) where they served the Kublai Khan, King of the Mongols. The book continues to describe Polo’s way back to Europe through India, the Arabian Sea and the Tartar region. In every place they visited, business played a key role, which shows the key role of business in establishing new friends abroad, then and now. Furthermore, we are told about multiple anecdotes evidencing the importance of trade in their relations with natives. Again, bartering, the exchange of gifts and merchandise is a powerful icebreaker when meeting strangers.

-Second, the book shows the importance of diplomatic skills for management across borders and cultures. Diplomacy is as essential for today’s global managers as it was to Marco Polo over his international enterprise. In fact, Polo was asked by the Kublai Khan to become his ambassador to the Pope and the kings of France and Spain, with the mission of bringing western educators to his country. Unfortunately, Polo could not fulfill this mission due to changes at the Holy See.

Interestingly, Polo did not speak the same language of Kublai Khan, and he could not rely on a translator to interact with the monarch. However, he was able to describe effectively his discoveries and findings on distant regions by bringing objects, making gestures or producing expressive sounds with his voice. It is interesting to realize how people may connect even missing a vehicular language they may both manage for communicating. It still happens today, very often in international politics.

-Third, the book illustrates that what people imagine is not less real than what they call reality. We are told about fantastic things like the wall erected by Alexander to stop the tartars; a region where shadows appear and disappear; a tower filled with treasures where a king starves; a dessert where demons adopt voices and features of friends to disorientate travelers; or Adam’s tomb in a mountain’s summit, among an innumerable sequence of incredible episodes.

However, on his return to Venice, many contemporaries did not believe Marco Polo and questioned whether his travels were real or a complete invention. To be realistic, though, would they have believed that some centuries after it would be possible to reach Cathay by flight in just hours, or to communicate in different languages instantly via Google translator?