7 Leadership Lessons from the Game of Thrones

GOTWhen you play the game of thrones, Cersei Lannister tells Ned Stark, you win or you die. The stakes are lower as we navigate the shoals of modern career-building, but the moves and counter-moves of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens shed light on what makes an effective leader in any walk of life. What follows is a spoiler-filled list of lessons culled from seven seasons of clashes over who will rule the seven kingdoms.

1. Know yourself

After outliving her entire family, Lady Olenna Tyrell has learned this lesson well, and she shares it with Daenerys Targaryen when the young queen is uncertain over her course of action. “You’re a dragon,” Olenna tells Dany. “Be a dragon.”

Those who make a brutally honest assessment of themselves are able to turn their liabilities into strengths. Tyrion Lannister calls Jon Snow a bastard and Bran Stark a cripple, not to insult them, but to urge them to face their liabilities as he has faced being a dwarf. He understands that he can’t control whether people call him imp and demon monkey, but he can control how responds. He knows that his mind is his strength, and he plays to it.

Lowborn Ser Davos Seaworth is another survivor of the game who knows himself and plays to his strengths. Mocked as the “Onion Knight” by highborn rivals, Davos embraces the insult, taking an onion as his sigil. When the red priestess Melisandre asks if he is good or evil, Davos tells her he is a mix of both, as all people are. Melisandre sees herself as purely good, and that blindness to her own flaws leads her to ruin, and her king along with her.

2. Know your why

In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl agrees with Friedrich Nietzsche that “If a man has a why, he can bear any how.” Many of those who play the game of thrones have no why beyond gaining power for its own sake.

None of the brothers Baratheon has a why. Robert overthrew the Mad King because the king’s son had kidnapped the woman he loved. Once his beloved and the prince are dead, Robert has no interest in ruling, no vision. He lets his advisors govern while he eats, drinks, hunts, and whores. Stannis wants to be king because the throne his by right and Renly wants to rule because his lover Ser Loras Tyrell’s flattery convinces him he deserves to, but neither of them has any more sense of purpose than Robert did.

It takes Daenerys a while to find her why. In the early seasons, she makes fiery speeches about how she was born to rule and the Iron Throne is hers by right, but she has no more vision of what she’ll do on that throne than any of the Baratheons. It is not until she reaches Slaver’s Bay that she finds her purpose. Among her many self-proclaimed titles, only Breaker of Chains speaks to a vision larger than herself and her House. When she finally gains the means to invade Westeros, but decides to remain in Mereen to protect the people she has freed from slavery, she proves herself at last a queen worthy of the throne.

The eunuch Varys may have the greatest why of all. “I serve the realm,” he tells Ned Stark in season one, and over the next six seasons, he proves it. With no family to divide his loyalties, no hope of an heir to inherit his power, Varys is single-minded in his mission to support a monarch who will protect the common people rather than treating them as expendable pawns in the game of thrones.

3. Build the right team

Robert reigns as long as he does only because he has a good team behind him: a Hand of the King (John Arryn) who is honorable and competent, a Master of Coin (Littlefinger) who can always find enough cash for the royal coffers, and one man (Varys) who serves the realm without any conflicting loyalties or ambitions.

Stannis has a formidable “help me be my best self” in Davos, but allows himself to be seduced by Melisandre, who tells him what he wants to hear rather than what is true.

Daenerys is the ultimate team-builder, attracting and keeping a group of men and women who serve her because they believe in her, and who tell her the truth even when she doesn’t want to hear it. Unlike Robert and Stannis, who frequently tell Ned and Davos “I don’t want to hear it,” the Dragon Queen listens to hard truths, even when they hurt. Her team keeps her accountable, restrains her from her worst tendencies, and inspires her to be her best self.

4. Build the right brand

When Maester Luwin is quizzing Bran Stark on the “words” of the great Houses, Bran replies confidently that the Lannister words are “A Lannister always pays his debts,” but he’s wrong. Their official words are “Hear me roar.” Really? thought probably every fan watching. The catchy slogan about debts has been repeated so many times that it’s become the Lannister brand – and a great brand it is, setting up many clever lines of dialogue and saving Tyrion’s life in the sky cells of the Eyrie.

The Stark words “Winter is coming” also make an effective brand, the perfect set-up for Arya’s deadpan “Tell them winter came for House Frey.”

The Night’s Watch has built a brand as effective as that of any great House. When Jon Snow rides off to follow his brother Robb Stark into battle, his friends ride him down and remind him that they are his brothers now. “Night gathers, and now my watch begins,” Sam says, and the young men surround Jon, reciting their oath, finishing in unison, “I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” Effective branding reminds Jon of his why, and he returns to do his duty.

5. Be flexible

Ned Stark is the most decent character on Game of Thrones, and yet it is his very decency that is his undoing. Unwilling to see Cercei Lannister’s innocent children suffer, he plunges the realm into the War of the Five Kings, and untold thousands of men, women, and children suffer in their place.

An excess of flexibility, on the other hand, can cause as much damage as the lack of it. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish – whose sigil should be a weasel instead of a mockingbird – bears an equal measure of responsibility for that war because it would never have begun if he hadn’t betrayed Ned.

After Danaerys burns alive the Tarlys, father and son, Varys and Tyrion debate the limits of moral flexibility. Both men are troubled by Dany’s readiness to cry “Dracarys!” but are willing to explore the subtleties of what can and can’t be justified. They understand, as Danaerys does, that a queen as upright as Ned Stark may end up with her head on a spike.

6. Have a growth mindset

In Mindset, Carol Dweck argues that people’s most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. The idea that talent alone creates success comes from a fixed mindset, and keeps people from developing their capacities.

When fat, bookish Sam Tarley arrives at Castle Black, the master of arms, Ser Alliser Thorne, is disgusted. He encourages the other new recruits to bully Sam, and never bothers to teach him anything. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont has the growth mindset Ser Alliser lacks, understanding that no matter how unfit any of these boys seem when they arrive, men of the Night’s Watch are made, not born. Eventually, Sam gives up his own fixed-mindset view of himself as a coward, and becomes as valuable a member of the Watch as any man.

Joffrey Baratheon is a poster boy for how a fixed mindset can ruin someone. Praised and flattered by his mother, ignored by his purported father, and never challenged by anyone except his uncle Tyrion, Joffrey is cruel, proud, vain, and utterly without accomplishments. His grandfather Tywin Lannister realizes this too late, and immediately after Joffrey’s death, begins patiently teaching Joffrey’s brother Tommen what he will need to become a good king.

7. Less is more

How many long-winded emails have you set aside to read later, when you would have read them immediately if they had been short and to the point? How many meetings have you spent surreptitiously checking your phone because they went on too long or didn’t stick to an agenda? In the business world, less is more.

The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen illustrates this point with meme-spawning hilarity. When Jon and Davos approach the throne, Missandei launches into her familiar litany: “You stand in the presence of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful queen of the Andals and the First Men, protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains.”

Both men are at a loss for words. Then Davos says, “This is Jon Snow. He’s King in the North.”

If there was email in Westeros, Davos wouldn’t have to worry about his being deleted unread.

Comments 3

  1. Dianna wrote:

    Wow! After watching the first 6.5 seasons, I am now watching it from the beginning to find all the story that was missed the first time. I found it quite difficult to follow in the beginning but stayed because it pulled me into each character and I needed to learn more. I am finding the second time watching, Brigette has explained, exactly, the how and why and the who. Thank you for this excellent display of your outstanding talent in writing and understanding! Bravo! All fans of the game should read this and then watch the series from the beginning once again, if they have not already done so!

    Posted 18 Aug 2017 at 1:00 pm
  2. Nate wrote:

    There’s definately a great deal to learn about this issue.
    I love all of the points you have made.

    Posted 06 Sep 2017 at 6:49 pm
  3. Eugenia wrote:

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    Posted 13 Sep 2017 at 11:55 pm

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