Toxic leadership: Joffrey Baratheon, and Daenarys Targaryen (again)

This is a rather appropriate time to get to toxic leadership, since today is the day people in the UK vote in the European elections, and also because of the controversy currently raging among Game of Thrones fans about Daenarys’ story arc and how it ended.

The source text I’m relying on is Dennis Tourish’s excellent bproxy.duckduckgo.comook The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership. In it, Tourish argues that the traits which management studies types celebrate and valorize in leaders aren’t actually positive in and of themselves; charismatic and visionary leaders can be massively narcissistic and selfish, transformational leaders can be emotionally manipulative; transactional leaders can refuse to admit they’re wrong. Indeed, one of the real dangers of behavioural theories in particular is a reluctance to consider the negative aspects of the behaviours identified as “leadership qualities”, and the valorization of leaders over all, in management studies, has, Tourish argued, led to such disasters as the 2008 global recession.

In Westeros, arguably even more leader-focused than management, the negative results are plain to see, playing out over eight seasons. However, a useful example is provided by Joffrey Baratheon, precisely because he’s such an obvious hate figure. He’s clearly selfish, nasty, power-obsessed, bullying, sadistic and casually homicidal. However, to take the point, none of that in and of itself actually detracts from his leadership ability. It makes decent political sense to have Ned Stark executed, and also to marry Stark’s daughter off as fast as possible to Tyrion, cementing the Lannister claim to the North while leaving Joffrey himself free to make an even more politically useful marriage to Margaery Tyrell– showing he has more sense in that regard than Robb Stark. None of this is to say that Joffrey is at all someone you’d want in charge of anything, let alone the Seven Kingdoms; but it’s to point out that the same skills and traits that can make a good leader, can also manifest in less positive ways.

To take a more recent example: Daenarys Targaryen firebombing Kings’ Landing from dragonback surprised many viewers, but it’s not at all out of keeping with what we discussed in the earlier entry on her leadership style. Indeed, it’s positively logical that a charismatic leader would be more inclined to a display of power to intimidate the opposition, even if it also alienates potential allies, than in thinking about long-term relationships (which are rather more the province of the transformational leader). The traits which gave her the strength to claw her way up from a pawn in the marriage game to conquer a continent, left unchecked, are the same ones that lead to her murdering innocent civilians simply because they had the misfortune to be born under Lannister rule.

The lesson to take from all of this is not only to keep a sharp eye on the leadership, wherever you are. It’s to ensure there are checks and balances in place. Both Joffrey and Daenarys’ homicidal tendencies could have been held in check by a system holding the ruler to account, and might even have survived the series had there been some system for removing them that doesn’t resort to out-and-out assassination.

Next week: gender and ethnic diversity with the Greyjoy siblings.

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Professor Fiona Moore

Academic, anthropologist and SF writer, living, teaching and working in a global city.

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