“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” —Cersei Lannister
*This post contains spoilers for all 8 seasons of Game of Thrones so read at your own risk.
The leadership decisions made by the characters in Game of Thrones sometimes (often) result in some pretty devastating consequences. However, the characters who take risks and survive learn how to improve their decision-making and navigate their perilous choices more effectively. Along with its entertainment value, Game of Thrones exemplified numerous management lessons, both constructive and inspiring, that I’ve experienced since my first job to being the founder and CEO of a company. Whether your goal is to overtake all seven kingdoms or just to get one last proposal out before bedtime – the lessons I’ve learned, and recognized in this amazing series, can relate to anyone’s individual story and ambition. Whether you have watched all 8 seasons of Game of Thrones or just tolerated the Monday morning water cooler chatter, these lessons (or lessons in what NOT to do) proliferate in the real business world.
1. Inspire Hope
Be like Jon Snow and inspire people, especially when times are challenging; strive to be the champion that everyone needs. Be strong in the face of adversity and never doubt that you’ll find a way to make things happen. If you believe in your team and they believe in you, anything is possible.
Game of Thrones’ plot is derived in part from myth (dragons, sorcery, reanimated dead characters) and in part from history (chronicles of past leadership dilemmas and reversals). While we may not be literally burned at the stake for our own poor choices, we face similarly wrenching tensions and unpredictable results: our projects can falter or we can put communities, broader economies, and the fortunes of our families at stake.
As leaders, we are more capable of managing chaos than we think, especially if we can maintain the right perspective. In the first season, Cersei Lannister (queen of the seven kingdoms of Westeros, where most of the story takes place) tells Ned Stark, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” I disagree. In the GOT fictional world and the present day real world, there absolutely is a middle ground: the realm of thoughtful decision-making that accounts for the values and beliefs of others.
2. Be Persuasive and Transparent
In season five of Game of Thrones, Lord Commander Jon Snow—the leader of the Night’s Watch fraternal order in charge of guarding a 700-foot-high ice wall that spans the northern end of Westeros—must make a near-impossible decision. After many long years of dormancy, a group of supernatural “others” reappeared beyond the wall with the ability to reanimate the dead and turn them into zombie-like wights. Their first victims are the self-professed free folk (or “wildlings”) who live on the other side of the wall, and who have been fierce enemies of the Night’s Watch for more than 1,000 years.
If Jon struck a mutual protection deal with free folk that would allow them to move behind the wall and join forces, it would make things extremely uncomfortable for many members of the Night’s Watch. The wildlings fought bitterly with many members of the Night’s Watch, killing their friends and massacring nearby communities, including some Night’s Watch members’ families. Even with the neighborly conflicts, the alternative would be worse.
This challenge calls for strategy and persuasion—skills that can’t be taken for granted, no matter what rank a leader may hold. “Leadership does not depend on position,” write scholars Robert E. Quinn and Ryan W. Quinn in their book “Lift: The Fundamental State of Leadership.” They describe leadership as a social process that’s often triggered “when people choose to follow someone who deviates from at least one accepted cultural norm or social convention.”
Jon must convince his colleagues of the Night’s Watch to join him in recruiting the wildlings. His persuasion skills reflect his values: truth, then community, then empathy, then courage. He exemplifies courage every day, both in battle and in confronting the attitudes of his Night’s Watch brothers’ about the wildlings. His commitment to empathy is evident in his commitment to recognizing humanity among people who have been ridiculed or feared, including his friend Samwell Tarly and the wildlings. Jon is devoted to his community because he is cast as a bastard son and an outsider in House Stark. He understands the importance of being inclusive.
But most of all, he is driven by truth. He grew up without knowing who his true parents are, and he has repeatedly made sacrifices on behalf of a deeper understanding of the realities around him. As an outsider thrust into a leadership role, he understands that truth isn’t just a talking point. The reality of the Night’s Watch—in this case, the existential threat they face and the humanity they share with the wildlings–can’t be spun or adjusted to suit a particular leadership agenda.
In confronting his brothers on the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow believes that the truth will win. He is wrong. He faces a communication situation in which the answer depends on the judgment of his subordinates.
Jon stumbles in this critical leadership moment because he underestimates the potential backlash of resistance on his team. Going against the full support of his Brothers, Jon allows the wildlings to enter, assuming that his angry team members will resign themselves to following his orders. Instead, he eventually gets led into a trap and surrounded but those who disagree with his decision. He believes they are his sworn allies, but they pull out their knives and unexpectedly stab him. And one of ‘his men’ knifes him in the heart.
Had Jon Snow engaged in more deliberate conversation, he could have spoken openly about the level of anger and rebellion triggered by his leadership decisions. He could have chosen to imprison or constrain his potential assassins, or he might have persuaded them by explaining his judgment more fully, supported by a real discussion of the risks.
3. Lead With Purpose
Jon Snow is just one of many Game of Thrones characters who wrestle with the demands of leadership. But there are a number of ultimately heroic leaders in Westeros, like Daenerys Targaryen, Samwell Tarly, Davos Seaworth, Lord Varys, Tyrion Lannister, Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, Jorah Mormont, and the surviving Stark siblings: Sansa, Bran, and Arya.
These leaders are imperfect, stressed, and dedicated to delivering results that improve the world. Leadership isn’t about winning, about having followers, or about fulfilling personal wants and desires. Even though many of the leaders listed above did not always use their power for good they demonstrated that leadership is about service. This requires the ability to dance in different roles and deliver what is required (within reason), to live out a tale that others will tell, and to inspire transformation in the lives of others.
4. Recognize Your Army, Who Makes it Happen
As the followers of the Lord of Light say, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” The same thought applies to business. Sometimes massive challenges are hiding right around the corner, and other times you’ll face nothing but success. Keep your team motivated through everything the “night” has to offer. Your business will succeed or fail based largely on the people in your organization. You must be loyal to your team, not to one specific individual. Your goal is to provide everyone the best possible leaders and managers.
Business is not for the faint of heart. Although many people and ideas will (figuratively) die along the way, it’s important to stay in the game and fight for success. Persistence will increase your odds at achieving greatness. Your team has likely fought many wars and will face many more in the future, but if you focus and continue to learn and grow, you can become a force that holds the North.
5. Strength of Character and Confidence Wins
As Tyrion, Sansa, Arya, and Jon Snow prove in the season finale of Game of Thrones: Good can prevail over evil. It might be a longer route to success laden with patience and perseverance but putting empathy first reaps the most rewards. In choosing partners who reciprocate our kindnesses we think long and hard about the longevity of our relationships.
Queen Daenerys Targaryen assembled her armies at Kings Landing and toppled the rule of Cersei Lannister, along with a major kill off of a number of significant characters. After all these years playing the Game of Thrones, Daenerys would appear to have won. But, she seems to have deteriorated psychologically, and, using her last remaining dragon, pretty much destroyed the city with wildfire, killing thousands of innocents in a misdirected vengeful rage. This was possibly fuelled by the death of her second dragon and the beheading of one of her closest aides, Missandei, not to mention the rebuffing by her lover, Jon Snow. Is a leadership challenge on the cards?
After all these years, we have seen Daenerys, a compassionate but ruthless leader, transform almost overnight into a mentally unstable super villain deciding that unnecessary mass slaughter was an appropriate course of action.
It is so disappointing that such a strong leader has descended to such a low.
Jon Snow is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. He is a compassionate war hero, a survivor, thoughtful and considerate. He uses a good balance of objective and subjective thinking (head and heart) to make decisions. People love him, he makes decisions based on what is right for the majority and not what is right for him or others that may try to sway him into misdirected decision making. He is humble, has a sense of humor, a compassionate chameleon and is able to engage at all levels. But above all, he is a true man of the people. He is the ideal leadership candidate when judged against any or all of the other candidates that we have seen come and go over the last 8 years or so.
Then in an act of true sacrifice, he kills Daenerys. And is banished to the North
What can we learn from their challenges and opportunities? The one lesson to take to heart is that you must accept a difficult challenge and face it. You will make mistakes, you will stumble, fear will overwhelm you, but it is your chance to commit to an important cause and pursue the right solution. Dedicate yourself to giving back to your staff, supporters, and ultimately, your community.
How did you like the ending of Game of Thrones? And what did you get out of the series as a whole? Comment below!
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