Game of Thrones Guide To Leadership – 8 Key Lessons
[SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t watched Season 5, proceed with caution.]
Are you in a dead end position? Does it sometimes feel like you are leading a team of ingrates or idiots? Are you unappreciated by your boss, your team or even your customers? Or is some power-hungry, incompetent, pimple-faced kid wearing your crown?
Whether your aim is to attract high achieving team members, take home more cash, land the coveted corner office, or build a brand that customers are dying to say “yes” to, there’s much to learn about leadership and business from your favorite Game of Thrones characters.
Based on the best-selling book series by George R. R. Martin, the show purports to be a fantasy drama about swords, seven kingdoms, social hierarchy, sex and sorcery but at its essence, it’s a master class on power, persuasion and leadership. The story revolves around the battle for the right to sit on the Iron Throne – to be the King the Seven Kingdoms – and as you would suspect, there are many characters who feel they have the only legitimate right to lead.
In many ways it’s the age old battle between good and evil but as we all know, power has the potential to corrupt and sometimes the lines between influence vs manipulation, leadership vs dictatorship, and death vs destiny become blurred. And if you think about it, this same power struggle is very likely playing out right now in your business or place of employment to varying degrees.
Can you spot the leader among this selection of fascinating, flawed and feared characters? Or is each one destined to play a subservient role or worse… be stabbed, poisoned or beheaded?
- The Democratic Leader
As the lone surviving child of the overthrown “Mad King”, Aerys Targaryen, Daenerys starts out adamantly believing that the Iron Throne is her birthright. As the series begins, she is forced into exile after her father is killed – which is where she marries the Dothraki leader Drogo, becomes the Khaleesi, and slowly earns a reputation as the “Breaker of Chains” and the “Mother of Dragons”.
The influence of the Dothraki on her leadership style is unmistakable. While others in Westeros follow self-proclaimed or inherited leaders, the Dothraki will only follow the one who has the strength to lead: You may lead as long as you are a leader.
By the end of season 4, she has amassed a large army of slaves from many cities, including the Unsullied. Even though the Unsullied must follow without question, she breaks their chains and invites them to choose to fight on her behalf. In freeing them and thousands of other slaves, Khaleesi discovers that birthright alone is not enough: The respect and loyalty she earns by choice, rather than force, is far more powerful and enduring. In the finale, we see her leadership style evolve yet again as she regretfully chains two of her beloved dragons up in the catacombs when she discovers that the third has killed a three year old girl.
Leadership Lesson: People follow strength above all. Regardless of birthright, death, appointment or tenure, leaders lead. They step up and do what needs to be done without the need for a title or lauding it over others. Saying someone is a leader doesn’t make them an effective one. In Jim Collin’s list of the top leaders in Good To Great, all were characterized by the absence of celebrity. For a leader to achieve something great, her ambition must be for the greatness of the work and the company, and not solely for herself.
- The Coercive Leader
We all know someone in a position of power who didn’t doesn’t deserve it and cannot handle it. Joffrey Baratheon was the quintessential, incompetent heir. In addition to his questionable lineage (i.e. he was a child of incest between Cersei and Jamie Lannister and not the first born son of Robert Baratheon), he made almost every mistake imaginable as the young King of the Seven Kingdoms. He was a bully, braggart, spiteful, irrational, a poor negotiator and a coward. Joffrey refused to listen to anyone’s advice, even though he was very young and had no battle (or leadership) experience. Perhaps Cersei summed it up best when she tried to counsel him to be a more benevolent leader – “The occasional kindness will spare you all sorts of trouble down the road.”
It’s a miracle that he lasted as long as he did. At his wedding to Margaery Tyrell, Joffrey was poisoned by a wine goblet at the banquet. His final gesture, as he lay dying in the arms of his mother, was to point towards his uncle Tyrion Lannister, as if to finger him as the assassin/culprit.
Leadership Lesson: While sometimes effective in a crisis, the “do as I tell you approach” should be avoided in every other circumstance as it can alienate team members, smother innovation and stifle flexibility. You cannot call yourself a leader if you are despised and you refuse to listen to feedback and suggestions from your team. This sort of leader will doom your workplace to failure as they will often take down other members, or the whole organization, on their way out the door.
- The Affiliative Leader
He may be one of the smallest characters, but Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of the most powerful man in King’s Landing, is a fan favourite who proves that it is possible to have a big impact no matter how small (or insignificant you feel) you are.
In the battle of Blackwater, Tyrion realizes that he must take charge and rally the men to fight — the King (Joffrey Baratheon) has run to hide with the women, his brother Jamie (the Kingslayer) is missing and his father Tywin Lannister is delayed in battle elsewhere. In addressing the men, Tyrion knows full well that his small stature is a serious disadvantage in battle and that the men are, outnumbered, scared and reluctant to put their own lives on the line for their cowardly King.
Tyrion does what Tyrion does best – he wastes no time on giving them a speech about honour, duty or glory, but rather, he inspires them with the “what’s in it for me” speech.
“Don’t fight for your king, don’t fight for his kingdoms, don’t fight for honour, don’t fight for glory, don’t fight for riches because you won’t get any. This is your city – Stannis Baratheon means to sack, your gate he’s ramming. If he gets in, it will be your houses he burns, your gold he steals, your women he will rape. Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”
Leadership Lesson: To lead you must always focus on strengths (yours and others) as opposed to attempting to compensate for weaknesses. People will naturally follow a leader who creates emotional bonds that bring a sense of belonging and purpose to each individual and the team.
- The Reluctant Leader
Jon Snow is the illegitimate son of Eddard (Ned) Stark and an unnamed prostitute. He was raised by Ned and Catelyn Stark and is much more introverted and solemn than his half siblings. Growing up with illegitimate status made him indignant and it spawned a deep desire to prove himself – as is evidenced by his decision to join the Night’s Watch and his choice of duty over love on many occasions.
Even as a valuable member of ”the rejected”, Jon finds himself an outcast and in direct conflict with both the leader of the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings. Despite all of this, Jon is a proven and effective leader of men, having been instrumental in battle against the wildlings, Stannis Baratheon and others. His time at the wall has solidified his resolve and allowed him to explore his true potential. However, notwithstanding his obvious clarity of vision, strategy, foresight, emotional intelligence and purpose, he is reluctant to claim the mantle of “Leader”.
Leadership Lesson: Leaders are made not born. Regardless of pedigree, tenure or title, people will naturally gravitate to the one who has purpose, passion and conviction. With the right mentorship and encouragement, these reluctant leaders (with street cred and loyal followers) can evolve and develop over time to become formidable and unassailable leaders.
- The Fanatical Leader
Stannis Baratheon, the eldest brother of the late King Robert Baratheon, was arguably the rightful heir given that Joffrey was not the legitimate son of Robert. He is a tried and tested battle leader whose dedication to the rule of law and stability means he provides generously for those under his rule and punishes those who challenge him or disobey his will.
As the story unfolds, he becomes increasingly rigid in his views, dependent on the black magic and prophesies of Melisandre and his iron-fisted leadership style alienates him from even his closest advisors. He is without empathy or mercy and simply cannot conceive of a world where anyone would see things differently to him.
Leadership Lesson: It is impossible to lead effectively (and with longevity) without empathy and the loyalty/respect of your team. A leader who continually trusts only himself and insists on holding all of his cards tightly to his chest, will quickly find himself with no team members to lead. This leader may very well be brilliant but he will nonetheless, fail miserably.
- The Charming Leader
Margaery Tyrell is a natural born politician, loved by the common people and one of the few characters uses her feminine wiles to gain power and persuade others. She has no army and no familial right to the Iron Throne yet she consistently re-positions herself within close proximity of it.
Even after her husband Joffrey is poisoned at their wedding banquet, she is quick to endear herself to his younger brother Tommen (the successor) and cleverly manipulate an important conversation with Cersei Lannister, to procure another shot at becoming Queen.
Margaery is under the careful tutelage of her grandmother Lady Olenna Tyrell. Now Lady Olenna has no formal authority, army or birthright to the Throne but nonetheless, she is one of the most unassuming, skilful and powerful characters. As an elderly, unmarried woman, Olenna flies completely under the radar but has had a monumental impact on the balance of power: Olenna was a linchpin in the assassination of Joffrey Baratheon. The Tyrell family control one of the major food production regions in Westeros and have assured the Lannisters that King’s Landing would continue to receive uninterrupted shipments, thus preventing rioting which previously destabilized the regime. At the end of Season 4, The Lannisters remain tenuously in power (reeling from the death of Tywin Lannister in the finale), due to the support of the Tyrell family.
Leadership Lesson: If you want to successfully herd a group of cats, try opening a can of tuna. Diplomacy and strategy may very well be more effective than strength, birthright or money.
- The Adaptive Leader
In a series known for twists and surprises and the untimely death of several key, beloved characters with strong leadership potential (Eddard Stark, Rob Stark etc.), Sansa Stark may herself be somewhat of a wildcard. Until the middle of the fourth series, she would best be described as meek, sheltered, naive and insignificant.
With each episode she is becoming increasingly worldly under first the tutelage of Joffrey Baratheon, then Tyrion Lannister and now Littlefinger. The seeds have effectively been sown for her dramatic metamorphosis. Born with her father’s sense of passion, honour and justice, she is slowly learning how to use her own innocence, frailty and trustworthiness as a weapon and tool to manipulate others. By the end of the fourth season there can be no doubt that she is not the same little girl who was kept hostage and bullied by King Joffrey. Even though we have no indication that she aspires to greatness or a position of leadership, she is being groomed for something important and she now has a deeper understanding of what it takes to rule the 7 Kingdoms. It would not be inconceivable for her to play a pivotal role alongside Littlefinger in future episodes.
Leadership Lesson: Adaptive leaders exert strategic influence on their environment by being willing to experiment, modelling behaviours of proven leaders, encouraging innovation and taking calculated risks. They excel as leaders when there is commitment and trust between the followers and them: In the absence of these two things, they are at best master manipulators and will be relegated to positions of secondary importance behind the scenes.
- The Unified Leader
It takes a unique, agile and talented individual to breach a 700-foot high wall of ice and overthrow a whole civilization. But it takes a leader to unite a group of wildlings, beasts and giants who are essentially defined by their independence and wild, unbridled nature.
Mance Rayder, The King Beyond the Wall, is the great leadership wildcard in the series because we know so little about him. If he can unite a large, diverse group of barbarians and mount The Wall, he may be a strong contender for leadership in a Westeros divided by petty squabbles and a bunch of King- Wanna-bees. However, In the Season 4 finale, Stannis Baratheon shows up to fortify the efforts of the Night’s Watch at The Wall and Mance Rayder is taken prisoner – his fate and future leadership aspirations are put into the hands of Stannis and Melisandre.
Leadership Lesson: A united team is more powerful than a group of passionate individuals working independently on their own goals. If you are an effective leader, you will choose people who are committed and focused on a singular goal–your goal. The worst thing you can do is to surround yourself with a team that does not believe in your vision or product/service.
When you look around your business or place of work, do you recognize any of these stereotypical leadership styles? Are you leading (or being led by someone) with an iron fist or do you feel as though your chains have been removed and you are finally free to reach your full potential?
Whatever the case may be, it pays to ask yourself “what type of leader do I aspire to be” and “whose vision of the future do I want to be a part of”? In the end we must all ask ourselves the million dollar question – “What is a Leader?”
As explained by Jim Collins in Good To Great, great leadership often goes unnoticed, unappreciated and unpublicized by the masses. Studying the foibles and virtues of these fascinating Game of Thrones characters is a great way to experiment with different styles and develop some strategies for enhancing or honing your own unique style.
Do you agree with my list, or like Jon Snow, “do I know nothing”? What other leadership lessons do you think can be learnt from the show? Get in touch and share your insights now via the comments section below.
**This blog is an excerpt taken from a series of posts and press releases on this subject by Rhondalynn Korolak. She is a lawyer, chartered accountant, media commentator, keynote speaker and best-selling author of 3 books, the most recent of which –Sales Seduction–is in theTop 20 Sales and Marketing Books on Amazon.com