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Leadership Lessons From Game of Thrones

Apr 9 2014, 5:26am CDT | by

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Leadership Lessons From Game of Thrones

Spoiler Alert: If you aren’t fully caught up with the show, advance at your own peril!

Alright people, after a long 9 months, Game of Thrones is finally back! In addition to my second full read-throughs of the book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” I occupied my Sunday nights since Season 3 ended by reading more blogs and joining more fan forums than I should probably admit. The combination of my love for all things Westeros and the work we do with business leaders at Kotter International has made me keenly aware that the leadership styles we see in Game of Thrones are frequently played out in real life. Therefore, in the spirit of our favorite show’s return, let’s take a look at some of the parallels we can draw and see what we can learn from each.

  • Robb Stark – Young, confident, successful. The Young Wolf’s march south to avenge his father and lead the North to independence from the Iron Throne is one of our favorite stories. Undefeated in battle against superior foes, Robb looks nearly invincible. Despite all of his successes in battle, however, he is slowly losing the war as the ever changing world around him leaves him increasingly powerless. Eventually a single blunder in his personal life is all it takes to unravel him and he ends up defeated. We have all heard this same story too many times – a successful business led by a charismatic leader flounders due to a scandal, addiction, or feuding at the top. Whether in Westeros or in our world, Robb can teach us a valuable lesson about the perils of blindly leading, heedless of the changing environment. In today’s rapidly changing world, you may think you are doing everything right but miss out on the bigger picture with a more ominous future.
  • Tywin Lannister – Full disclosure, Tywin is my favorite character in the series. Ruthless, feared and respected. The Lord of Casterly Rock is known for his brutal handling of those who oppose him, but is widely recognized as a brilliant tactician.  At the end of Season 3 we see Tywin facilitate the betrayal of Robb by the Boltons and the Freys, proving that some wars must be won with swords, but others can be won with pens. Steve Jobs and Jack Welch have been described as both feared and respected leaders, though the question must be asked… is it enough to only be loyal to one’s family name or brand?  Ruthlessness and fear may work to unify an empire, but as discontent in Westeros grows in season four, we will wait to see if a brutal leader can maintain his grip on power in the face of discontent from below.
  • Daenerys Targaryen – Daughter of the deposed Mad King Aerys Targaryen, Khaleesi believes the Iron Throne is her birthright. As she moves her way across Essos, however, the Mother of Dragons quickly takes on a new form – the Breaker of Chains. In freeing the slaves from those cities she conquers, Daenerys shows that she is loyal to those beneath her and that she is truly the matriarchal leader type. The question remains, will it be her birthright that drives her to reclaim the throne of Westeros, or will she rule by the consent of the governed, whose loyalty she strives to earn?
  • Joffrey – The incompetent heir. In addition to being one of the most reviled characters on television, Joffrey has proven himself utterly useless in a leadership role. His handling of Ned Stark precipitated a major war, despite the better advice of his advisors. It goes without saying that we all know of someone in a position of power who either didn’t deserve it or couldn’t handle it. Working for this type of manager (note that I chose not to describe these types as leaders!) is a tough pill to swallow and can feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. In a rapidly changing business environment, a manager who neither manages well nor leads effectively is doomed to failure – the question becomes when – and will they take the organization down with them?
  • Jon Snow – Another of the fan favorites, Jon Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark and the only taint on the otherwise morally righteous leader. Even upon joining the Night’s Watch, a contingent of the rejected, John finds himself the outcast. Time and time again, we saw Jon choose duty over love, in direct contrast to Robb. Despite seeing a clear path forward and  sacrificing for the good of others in the name of duty, Jon is reluctant to claim the mantle of leader, another personality we frequently encounter in organizations.

Looking around your own organization, are you led by a Tywin Lannister, ruling with an iron fist? Or maybe you work for Robb Stark, noble and steadfast to the end, but lacking the vision or awareness to see the bigger picture. Whatever the case may be, we should all ask ourselves what type of leader we want to be and who we want to work for. These questions have broader implications than just personality typecasting – this is about supporting that leader whose vision of the future we want to be a part of.  While I won’t ruin the story line for those who are unawares, I will leave you with a parting thought for leading both kingdoms and companies alike: “when you play the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die!”

Cameron Welter works at Kotter International (www.kotterinternational.com), helping leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organizations. Follow Kotter International on Twitter @KotterIntl, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. Sign up for the Kotter International Newsletter.

 

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