To recap: we have now considered behavioural theories of leadership, which identify certain behaviour traits which are arguably necessary, if not sufficient, for a person to become a leader, and contingency-based theories of leadership, which point out that social and political circumstances also affect who gets to lead (and, following on from that, which behaviour traits are necessary for a successful leader in those circumstances).
All very well, but an audience of astute Game of Thrones fans might note there’s something missing here. Namely, power relations.
This is something management studies has also taken note of, particularly given the successive waves of theories (postmodernism, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism) which all revolve, to a greater or lesser extent, towards looking at unequal power dynamics in society (if you’re interested in reading more about this in the non-Westerosi working world, I can recommend the work of Paul Willis, Lauren Rivera, and R. Roosevelt Thomas for a start).
Westeros is a good place to observe the complex ways in which power relations can affect a path to leadership. For one thing, it makes the official path to leadership, which is straightforward in theory, rather complicated in practice (hence why the death of Robert Baratheon doesn’t lead only to the coronation of his eldest son, but also to a bloody civil war involving his brothers, and, on the sidelines, challenges from other interested parties who may regard Joffrey’s claim to the throne as illegitimate, or else may simply say they do in order to have a shot at the top job themselves).
Voluntarily choosing to give up a claim to a leadership position, as with Jeor Mormont, Jon Snow and Aegon Targaryen, can nonetheless put you in a different sort of leadership position (I’d describe the Nights’ Watch as a semi-meritocracy, in that you don’t have to have had a nobleman’s education in governance and martial arts to lead it, but it clearly sure helps), and can even make you a potential candidate to return to the official leadership race (Stannis Baratheon didn’t seek out Jon Snow for his pretty face, interesting pet, and reasonably sound moral compass).
When it comes to gender and leadership, things can get even more complex: noble women, for instance, have clear power over peasants, vassals and bannermen; are also powerless relative to noble men; while they’re generally not first choice, outside of Dorne, as official leaders, clearly the rule of queens is not unprecedented, or generally unacceptable. Furthermore, clearly most of the women in Westeros who choose a traditional feminine gender role are quite skilled in exercising soft power, or engaging in unofficial, behind-the-scenes power games. Cersei, for instance, was quite clearly prepared to rule through her children, as Catelyn Stark was the effective power behind her son Robb. Religion also provides a way for women to exercise power in more official capacities: consider Melisande, consider Septa Unella. However, this necessitates playing complex political games. From a leadership point of view, it’s completely fascinating watching Margaery Tyrell building complicated power bases involving husbands, brothers, charismatic religious movements, and mobs of poor urban labourers.
However, for our case study, I’d like to point to someone whose rise to power is just as complicated, rather more painful, and ultimately more successful, namely, Sansa Stark.
For quite a lot of the series, Sansa was the subject of large amounts of viewer criticism for her passivity with regard to the power games of Westeros. In my view that’s rather unfair, given that she starts the series as a teenager too young to menstruate (for those of you who think I’m being gratuitous here, it’s actually a plot point), and who spends much of the first few seasons cut off from her allies and living among people who are her family’s sworn enemies. This ultimately culminates in her getting manipulated by Petyr Baelish into marrying Ramsay Bolton, arguably the worst human being on Westeros (though he’s going to be the subject of a later post in this series, and not, actually, the one on Toxic Leadership either).
This is when she shows that she’s clearly learned from her experiences, and from watching the people around her. After realising that no one’s coming to save her from this, she shows a clear tactical sense in finding a way of escaping, locating allies to help her, and, crucially, doing a deal with Baelish to help her brother defeat her husband (in the Battle of the Bastards, Bolton’s clearly the best tactician, but Sansa’s clearly the best politician, and at the end, it’s politics that turns out to matter). She then, crucially, doesn’t let that alliance stand, but figures out a way to manipulate Baelish into exposing his own power games, and ultimately winds up as the effective power in Winterfell, with Jon even acknowledging to Daenarys that Sansa is a better Warden of the North than he would be.
As Tyrion says to Sansa, “Many have underestimated you. Most of them are dead now.”
And it’s also worth noting that she does all this while still remaining within the bounds of what’s socially acceptable for a Westerosi noblewoman. One of the things Game of Thrones does well is showing us ways in which female leaders– and male ones as well– make decisions about whether to stay within or transgress the gender norms of their society in order to exercise power, and showing us that both can lead to success in different ways.
Jon Snow may have transformational behaviour and a claim to the throne, but when it comes to leadership skills, and the ability to succeed despite being on the wrong end of power dynamics in Westeros, he has nothing on his female relatives.
Next week: Traditional paths to leadership, with Robb Stark and the Baratheon Brothers.
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