Who was the real Akbar? Was he a cruel conqueror as some believe or was he a visionary as many other so?
There is no easy answer for this except that he was a mix of these two characters.
Akbar was a great ruler in the sense he ruled over vast area of south asian continent and single handedly conquered them. In order to conquer them he used many techniques
One was war where the emperor attacked and annexed other kingdoms
Second was intimidation by various means like after he killed more than 30,000 civilians in Chittorgarh in Chittorgarh Seige in 1568 the other forts that were attacked submitted without much resistance. This was a fear psychological tactic used by many rulers specially Ghenghis Khan.
Third was marriage alliances- If you cannot win them join them, Akbar did opposite if you cannot break them ensure you have marriage alliance with them. Akbar faced stiff resistance from Rajputhana kingdoms so he started marriage alliances with them. The Rajpuths submitted either willingly for some favours or by coercion in fear of losing their kingdoms. Majority wanted their next generation to remain royals, not continue wars with the strong mughal army, so they married off their daughters to Akbar and struck an alliance with them. This was most used tactic of Akbar and right from Hira Kunwari(Prince Salims mother) to Rukmavathi(whom he married at age 39 years in 1581) to many other Rajputh wives marriage alliance was used as instrument to expand empire, to keep rajputh kings loyal and to prevent any future rebellion. With exception of couple of alliances like Ruqaiah Sultan, Salima Sultan who were cousins or Daulat Shad a nobels wife majority remaining wives or secondary wives were all married to Akbar as a political alliance tool.
Akbar was a very capable ruler compared to other mughal emperors in the sense that he was a visionary who appointed capable men as his ministers and advisors. The nine navarathnas to other nobels, Akbar was a great manager(in modern terms) who knew whom to appoint to get work done and how to get work done from them. Many of Akbars wars were won under the leadership of his commanders like Bairam Khan, Man Singh or even his sons Prince Salim or Prince Murad etc. This is not to mean that Akbar was not a great commander but in later years(late 30s onwards) it was usually these commanders who went to war against enemies of mughal empire.
Akbar was an excellent visionary whose thinking was ahead of his times in terms of social and religious sphere. So he banned jaziya(tax for non muslims), pilgrimage tax(on non muslims), abolished sati(provided the woman objects to it), allowed widow remarriage, set up minimum age for marriage etc
He abolished sati but also added a clause that only if the widow permits she can sit on funeral pyre. This was like hitting two birds with one stone the hindus would not raise up against him for going against their religious practices and also if the lady did not want to do sati they could be saved by the police(kotwals) appointed by mughals.
In terms of marriage alliance he again showed similar far sightedness in the sense that he married Hindu princesses to forge alliance and crush rebellions by their kin, but in order to appease the Hindu Kings he allowed the Hindu princess to follow their religious rituals and festivals in private. For all official purposes his Hindu wives were muslims (mostly converted to Islam at time of marrying him) but in private they followed their Hindu religion rituals.
He also kept discussions on various religions in his palace and did not easily yield to diktats of the religious lobby in his court.
Akbar was an excellent image consultant(modern term), he always ensured that a certain image of himself was projected to public, a case of point is Akbarnama. Now this is what most rulers of past as well as politicians of today do. So he projected himself as a father figure of his citizens, a benevolent ruler who was concerned about his citizens.
Similarly unlike a Jehangir or Shah Jahan, although his wives had roles to play in advising him he never allowed the impression to go out that he was never under command. In those times society considered that if a husband listened or took wife advice he was an weak ruler or a hen pecked husband.
Akbar was particularly lenient and forgiving to some who revolted against him specially kin like Mirza Hakim, Sharifuddin, Salim etc and same time could be cruel too to others like Kamran Mirza’s sons who were put in prison for life or killed.
Similarly during war times, he would invoke the jihad or religious war to instill motivation in the mughal army.
Basically Akbar was a mix of a ruthless warrior to his enemies as well as an excellent administrator of his empire. He could be strict and violent to his citizens and subordinates when required and also benevolent when required. He was an excellent image manager in modern terms a public relations expert who projected the image he wanted to the outside world be it his citizens or enemies. He was also a calculated risk taker and a far sighted reformer.