“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” When you’re an ambitious entrepreneur, everything sounds like a metaphor for your business. I don’t know about you, but compared to Game of Thrones, my business has far fewer swords and fur cloaks, and no dragons to speak of. But leaders – kings, queens, conspirators, and crownless – are everywhere, both there and here. Which begs the question: Which ruler are you? Try these examples on for size.
Robert Baratheon. Charismatic but clueless. Bored by details, and the last to know what is actually going on. Eventually marginalized and subverted by his lieutenants.
Cersei Baratheon. A plotter, always seeking more power. When her plots backfire, she covers them over with new plots, eventually making a mess too big to be swept under any rug. Unable to take actions at face value, she evaluates everyone according to her perception of their (sometimes imagined) ulterior motives.
Ned Stark. Honest, capable, and hard-working, but lacking in imagination, especially in the shadowy world of greased palms and whispered rumors. This ox will pull the load until his back or his heart breaks. May lose his head at the worst possible time.
Catelyn Stark. Some rulers lead by force of character more than title. As conscience and counselor for her husband Ned and son Robb, Catelyn provides indispensable guidance and support. Her blind spot is her over-reliance on her own good judgment, even when situations bring her contrary facts which should not be ignored.
Daenerys Targaryen. A true believer who leads from a position of absolute sincerity. Her deeply-held beliefs and ability to inspire others appear almost magical. She soon finds that even a charmed life is not enough to conquer all the inertia and intrigue of ruling a kingdom.
Stannis Baratheon. A cold-blooded judge. The rules must be followed! All justice, no mercy; carries a grudge. Hampered by his inability to compromise.
Renly Baratheon. The opposite of his brother Stannis, he is interested in pageantry more than leadership. Rules, what rules? Playing king is cool. Let’s do lunch, on my brother’s expense account. Which brother? Does it matter?
Joffrey Baratheon. A tyrant who wants power without responsibility. Everything has to be his way, which changes at a whim. Even when he’s right, others suffer.
Robb Stark. He fills a hero’s shoes, but is less skilled than he appears. A blank slate that others project their wishes on. He is untested and lacking judgment.
Tyrion Lannister. Look past the carefully-maintained bad reputation, and you may find a man of stature. He protects his own, deals fairly with friend and foe, and always spays his pets. The opposite of Joffrey, he’s taller than he first appears.
Setting up the royalty in Game of Thrones as archetypes of typical leadership traits is a fun idea. But let’s see if we can get the metaphor to bear a little more weight. A great leader has and shares a vision; leads by example; and mentors and corrects others. Do we see that in Game of Thrones’ rulers, and does it make any difference in their outcomes?
Yes and no. I think the two best examples of this type of character-driven leadership are Ned Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. Stark’s sudden demise was my first indication that this was no simple fairy tale. In the world of Game of Thrones, even good rulers flounder, fail, and are betrayed. I believe this is intentional: that author George R.R. Martin is making a point about what seeking power does to people, and about the corruption inherent in government.
Luckily, the stakes in modern business are not quite as high as in a mediaeval kingdom. We may experience a quarter-over-quarter decline in sales, or a key initiative may stumble. In Westeros, they get gored by a boar, or suffer some fatal variation of a knife in the dark. Kings and queens come and go, and visionary leaders are few. Is your company still searching for that perfect mix of leadership traits, as Westeros is?
It could be that she is still far from the centers of power, being shaped by adversity. Or that he is nearby, but easily overlooked. Maybe a little magic will be required, or a change of perspective. In business, as in literature, it pays to sleep with one eye open, and keep your sword sharp.
Do you recognize Game of Thrones leadership styles in yourself or your coworkers? I have worked with Cersei and Tyrion; worked for Stannis and Renly; and had the humbling experience of being Robert. What about you? Strap on your sword and tell me about your adventures in the comments below.