Look up ‘leadership lessons from Game of Thrones’ on Google, and you will find dozens of articles offering leadership tips based on the HBO series, from Fortune magazine to the Wall Street Journal.
“The books don't bear much resemblance to real life” writes serial entrepreneur Jeff Haden on LinkedIn. But take away “the gratuitous violence, incest, black magic, and dragons” he continues, “and HBO's Game of Thrones is a simple story of the battle to be the best: the best warrior, the best leader, and the best kingdom. That's something every entrepreneur can relate to.”
Well, with the new season scheduled to be broadcast from 17 July in the UK, I thought I’d offer my own thoughts on the saga, with a slightly different twist.
Game of Thrones – series 7
The last series – series 6 – if you remember, ended with Daenerys Targaryen sailing to Westeros with her soldiers, supporters and dragons, to reclaim the Iron Throne. “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell: they’re all just spokes on a wheel” announced Daenerys in one of her more memorable quotes from the last series. “This one’s on top and that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. We’re not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
Meanwhile, in the cold and wintery climes of northern Westeros, Jon Snow has just been proclaimed King in the North, and is conscious of the threat posed by the massing army of the dead being marshalled beyond the Wall. There is an epic fight coming, between the living and the dead, and Jon Snow knows that all the squabbling and feuding of Westerosi lords pale in comparison to the great struggle to come.
Leadership lessons from Game of Thrones?
Now most articles on the subject of leadership in Game of Thrones begin with the premise that each king and queen and rival warlord in the series offer different ways of being a leader – different strategies for success and survival, if you will.
So we have the Starks, the Lannisters, the Boltons, and so on – mini ‘organisations’ with their own characteristic values and personalities. The Wall Street Journal even offers a quiz: “What is Your ‘Game of Thrones’ Management Style?”
And to some extent this sort of thing is OK – providing you are happy with the comparison of a late Medieval kingdom with the world of modern business. But the question of leadership which Game of Thrones puts to its viewers is not simply one of performance – which leaders do better and worse and why. Rather, I would like to suggest that Game of Thrones also asks the question of how leadership is related to issues of responsibility.
Responsibility in leadership
Responsibility in this sense does not mean merely taking responsibility for organisational success or failure. This already happens to an exaggerated degree in the world of business leadership, thanks in part to our romantic ideals of the ‘great individual’ (think of the cult of the very well paid CEO, or of successful entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson).
The question of leadership which Game of Thrones puts to its viewers is not simply one of performance.
I am rather pointing to the way in which ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are defined in the first place. Because responsibility is not merely a bottom-line issue judged by shareholders; it is also concerned with thinking about how an organisation is embedded in society, what it gives back, what its purpose is and how it contributes to the collective – including to the wellbeing of its employees.
These ‘second order’ questions, related to taking responsibility for the collective good, are rarely addressed in the leadership literature. As leadership academics Brigid Carroll and Steve Kempster argue in a recent book titled Responsible Leadership, "much thinking and writing on leadership doesn’t seem to be concerned with the big, pressing challenges facing the world; rather it tends to be narrowly focused on the relationship between people in positions and their direct reports to meet organisational performance expectations."
At a time when global needs call for a move, in the words of Kofi Annan, "from value to values, from shareholders to stakeholders, and from balance sheets to balanced development", Carrol and Kempster suggest that it is time for a more socially ‘responsible’ understanding of leadership.
Responsibility in Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones offers an illuminating case study for exploring the dynamics of responsibility in leadership. Throughout the series, the characters make moral judgements based on what they think are good causes, and it is up to the viewer to discern between better and worse decisions. Do we approve, for example, of Cersei’s or Littlefinger’s way of climbing the ladder of power – and subsequently of exercising that power? Was Ned Stark’s execution at the end of the first series the result of folly or virtue?
The action of the new series is going to be fixed for the most part on Danerys’ attempts to secure the Iron Throne and break the ‘wheel of history’, which has involved so much death and suffering for the people caught underneath.
The characters make moral judgements based on what they think are good causes, and it is up to the viewer to discern between better and worse decisions.
Added to that, with the arrival of winter, is the more cosmic vision of the struggle to come between the armies of the living and the dead. We have seen Jon Snow attempting to convince his fellow northern lords of the threat that faces them throughout series 6. And as the saga approaches its conclusion, it is imperative that these leaders see this bigger more ‘global’ picture, and join forces urgently to combat it. (Interestingly there are even parallels here with the threat of climate change and ecological disaster – we are told that the origin of the White Walkers is owed to the going-wrong of a spell designed to protect the woodland home of the Children of the Forest, which was being cut down and plundered by industrious men.)
A little more responsibility in leadership?
As a representative of a leadership training consultancy, I would like to encourage more conversation broadening leadership from its fixation on meeting performance objectives, into a discussion about responsibility for followers and the common good. The word leadership itself is derived in part from the Norse, laed, to find the way at sea. And in today’s turbulent waters leaders should be encouraged to adopt a broader and deeper kind of responsibility for their followers, as well as for the global networks of which they are a part.
New generations are now entering the workplace with different attitudes to work and to issues of responsibility. And as we cheer on the young heroes – the ‘Millennials’ – of Game of Thrones, we could perhaps notice how their approach to leadership offers us a way of appreciating the extent to which it is tied up with duty, integrity, and responsibility, for a more ‘common’ good.