Game of Thrones: 5 Leadership Lessons

One of the most watched television series over the past 5 years has been The Game of Thrones. While aptly criticized for its inane, gratuitous use of sex and graphic violence, the plots are definitely intriguing, and any story of power struggles among seven kingdoms is bound to offer useful lessons of leadership. Here are five that resonated with me. (For those who have yet to see the series, a spoiler alert is in order.)
1. Actions speak louder than words – Although Jon Snow is a mere Steward of the Night’s Watch on The Wall, his actions during the attack of the Wildlings proved far more effective than the blustery words of acting Lord Commander Alliser, so much so that when the brotherhood held their elections after the battle, Snow was voted new Lord Commander. Alliser himself fought bravely during the battle, but Snow motivated, mobilized and directed the men to strategically fight off the attack, then led by example with courageous resolve.
Leaders are constantly scrutinized, and employees often remain silent about their loyalty and opinions. To talk a good game and construe silence as agreement and commitment is a risky strategy. Leadership is a relationship between followers and leaders, and credibility is built more through example than mere verbal communication. Authentic leaders walk their talk.
2. Surround yourself with (and listen to) those wiser than yourself -The young Queen Daenarys Targaryen is intelligent, ethical, and clear about her vision for ruling a better society, yet also aware of her youth and inexperience in the regal role. Her humility and wisdom result in surrounding herself with trustworthy and wise counsel (Jorah, Daario, Missandei, Hizdahr, Barristan), and there are several occasions when, upon listening to their arguments and advice, she courageously changes her original decision, to follow the wiser course of action. She does not need the idea to be hers.
The very traits, behaviours and characteristics that raise a person to a position of power and authority are often antithetical to those required to maximize results once there. Bold decisiveness and self-confidence make it natural and easy to rely on one’s own counsel. Yet history repeatedly shows that ‘none of us is smarter than all of us’. Effective leaders seek out diverse and conflicting opinions, and listen for hard truths rather than political or popular input. They constantly guard against hubris of others and of themselves, and make broadly informed, sound decisions.
3. Don’t judge the book… – Tyrion Lannister at first glance is a deeply wounded, cynical, drunken philanderer; to many the joke of the powerful Lannister family and ‘also ran’ of the court. As the series progresses, we see him surprise many in the court when appointed the King’s Hand: shrewd, political judgement, an honest sense of humour, a penchant for truth, compassion for the downtrodden and innocent, and even courage in battle. The wily, yet similar Lord Varys was perhaps the only one who looked past the book’s cover, and spotted the highly capable person beneath the facade.
There’s a saying that conflict is caused by those whose needs are not being met, or who feel they are not being heard, yet often we do not openly declare that. If dissonant, we can act out our dissatisfaction by stirring things up in the workplace. Intelligent leaders read the book cover but then look deeper into the pages. Sometimes the troublemakers are just that. Other times, once heard and understood, the troublemaker comes aboard, and can even turn into a champion of the cause who brings others aboard too. Good leaders mine deep to find the talent beneath the surface.
4. Shared visions trump singular ones – if one follows the logic of the plot, it’s difficult not to concede that Stannis Baratheon likely is the true claimant to the Iron Throne. He certainly believes it, and it becomes his obsessive vision to gain the throne by any means. This leads to iron-willed, ruthless behaviour, and in his unswerving ambition, he eventually loses men, brother, wife, daughter, and finally his own life. His attempts to form alliances were by threat, bribery or force. Never did he consider crafting a shared vision of the Seven Kingdoms with other stakeholders.
Because leaders tend to be prescient creatures, it is normal and easy to craft their own vision and forge ahead with good intent and strong will. But is that sufficient? Some of the most effective leaders in history achieved superior results by beginning with their vision, then vetting it through many camps and layers of stakeholders. They truly understand that radical and deep changes can only be achieved through the concerted effort of everyone whom the vision will affect. By inviting input from representatives of all who will be affected, great leaders create a comprehensive and encompassing shared vision that inspires and galvanizes all whose effort is required to achieve it.
5. Expect the unexpected – the rivalries of families and Kingdoms had been ongoing for centuries, and given the times and technology, competition had largely been the same: swords, spears, catapults, horses, armour. The paradigm was clear, and while strategies varied, those doing the planning knew more or less what to expect. That is, until Daenarys showed up with three dragons (which had not been around for a thousand years). This caused many leaders who, (other than trying to murder Daenarys as a child), did not see her as a major threat, to hastily re-evaluate their strategies in light of the new realities.
While the leaders in the Game of Thrones may be forgiven for overlooking the possibility of dragons entering the scene, the lesson is timeless: we cannot predict the future, and must therefore build agility and resilience so as to be able to quickly react to the inevitable surprises. In WWII, the dragon was nuclear weaponry. Recent corporate dragons (Apple, Uber, 3D printing) have already disrupted several industries, whose leaders were no doubt competently planning strategy under the old rules. The game is changing, and so too must expectations.
Will we ever learn?
There has been much praise and much criticism of Game of Thrones, but love it or hate it, there are valuable leadership lessons woven within. When one reviews history: the Civil War, both World Wars, global politics and nation-building, all of these leadership mores are recognizable; sometimes by their skilled application, and sadly, more often by their absence. The cost of ignoring them has been high. And of course they are equally applicable to the ‘battlefield’ of corporate competition, where the risks are less fatal, but the quality of society is nonetheless seriously impacted. Hopefully our political and corporate leaders will watch the series and take notes.

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