SPOILER ALERT: Some of the references take place in Season 7
Game of Thrones is a massive cultural phenomenon. By some accounts, it is responsible for close to $1 billion in revenue growth (after all, some actors earn close to $500,000 per episode). At the same time, the show generates a slew of thought pieces, from plain-vanilla recaps to longform pieces analyzing the social and political climate of Westeros.
But what about leadership? In some ways, drawing leadership lessons from Game of Thrones is a tricky proposition; as any fan of the show will tell you, Machiavellian scheming and betrayal, while acceptable during the rough-and-tumble Medieval setting of the show, isn’t exactly in vogue at the moment. Put simply, plenty of the show’s role models, ethical individuals who try to do the right thing, often meet a gruesome end.
Yet look beyond this feature of GoT, and it’s clear that there are lessons to be gleaned–even amidst the increasingly grim, harsh world of Westeros, where winters last for years and industrialization is stymied by weather, dragons, and incessant war. That’s because certain leadership principles hold true across societies and historical eras.
Unite in the face of a common enemy
In Game of Thrones, the existential threat isn’t simply the Starks, Lannisters, Greyjoys, or any number of diametrically-opposed, Great Houses. True, they’re all fighting each other for control of the realm, squabbling like crows over a corpse (hence the title of the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows). Now the devastation wrought by this war for power is real–but the greater issue isn’t replacing one House with another.
Instead, it’s the White Walkers, a race of otherworldly beings who threaten to bear down on Westeros with their zombie armies–a threat believed to be a parable for climate change. Certainly the parallels are there: squabbling governments fighting over petty issues, even as the real menace lurks in the background. Add to that the fact that, until the latest episode, many didn’t even believe that White Walkers existed–until proof was brought to them. Arguably, of all the leaders, only Jon Snow had the foresight to see the real enemy–even if he did not succeed at first in persuading the others to follow.
Sound familiar? In a situation like this, it takes real clarity and foresight to mediate age-old blood feuds and rivalries, and rise above internecine warfare to confront a greater challenge. Whether humans can rise above tribal differences and unite for a greater good remains to be seen–in both Westeros and our world.
Don’t overextend yourself
Few characters in Game of Thrones are as tragic as Theon Greyjoy–even if his character may well be in line for a redemption. Born as the son of the seafaring Greyjoy clan of the Iron Islands, Theon was handed to the Starks as a hostage following the failed rebellion of his father, Lord Balon Greyjoy. From this sprang a deep identity crisis, for even as Theon grew up in a comfortable (if not exactly warm) environment in the North, he still yearned to please his distant father–and fit into his brutal ways.
This conflict led Theon to not just betray the Starks, taking their ancestral home (the castle of Winterfell), but also to overextend himself in doing so. Eager to prove his mettle as a true Iron Islander, Theon holds the castle, even amidst the face of an increasingly hostile landscape. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Theon and his meager troops were outmanned and outnumbered: they’re faced with both hostility within the castle and without–something further exacerbated by Theon’s (supposed) killing of the two young Stark boys, Bran and Rickon. Ultimately, Theon was captured, tortured, and nearly killed–bearing trauma that will likely accompany him through the rest of his days.
In life, as in Westeros, overextending yourself can be devastating (though not generally fatal). History is rife with examples of empires (both governments and companies) whose grasp far exceeded their abilities. Just look at Zenefits, the billion dollar HR startup that, ironically, had huge problems with HR. In a nutshell, it grew way too quickly, to the point that reps selling insurance didn’t have the proper credentials, or backend interfaces remained underdeveloped, leaving inexperienced staff to manually input and send information to insurance and payroll providers.
Granted, Zenefits is still around, even if its luster has diminished greatly. Yet one has to ask if these growing pains (as well as the ensuing scandals) were worth it.
Ignore the importance of social norms–at your peril
Don’t misunderstand: there are plenty of flawed, arbitrary, and downright unacceptable social standards in all our societies, Westerosi and modern alike. This includes stereotypes about race or preconceptions about gender; obviously, these ingrained beliefs should be resisted as actively as possible.
Yet to violate certain standards of ethical behavior is to incur a strong taboo, and in fact, can lead to defeat. Take Lord Petyr Baelish, the schemer popularly known as Littlefinger; cunning, manipulative, and intelligent, Baelish was always two steps ahead of his opposition. In fact, his rise from a poor, minor lord to Master of Coin (Treasurer) and later, advisor to both the Lannisters and the Starks was remarkable: in a land where blood and money accounted for everything, he was a rare, meritocratic success.
Yet his success would ultimately be his downfall–as Baelish broke far too many codes of conduct. He murdered and betrayed without remorse, setting sister against sister, marrying off his ward to a sadistic psychopath, and even killing his own wife, using her simply as a stepping stone to gain her lands and power. Even by Westerosi standards, this was excessive: after all, the society prided itself on being bound to the embodiments of the (admittedly flawed) system of chivalry–an important tenet of which included the importance of one’s word and moral reputation.
In the end, by transgressing against family, held sacred by the Westerosi (and nowhere more so than in the North of the country), Littlefinger sealed his own fate: the two Stark sisters united against him and put an end, finally, to his plotting. In much the same way, by flaunting similar taboos (such as sexual harassment at Uber or flat-out lying about results at blood-testing startup Theranos), there are “red lines” that we cannot cross. However profitable it may seem to break certain rules, social decorum and the concept of shame remain very strong in our society–as Travis Kalanick no doubt discovered.
In all honesty, there are countless parallels and lessons that can be drawn from Game of Thrones. After all, the series (both book and show) is rooted in real history, such as the English civil war popularly known as the War of the Roses (the Yorks and Lancasters/Starks and Lannisters), as well as historical counterpart cultures like Spain, Carthage, and Rome. Still, the leadership lessons are clear as day; even seasoned business executives and veteran leaders can still glean some valuable insights from this sprawling, epic fantasy.