Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones: a series

From today, I’m starting a new feature on this blog.

The backstory: One of the things I teach is leadership theory. In order to make it more fun for the students (and for myself), I started doing a lecture where I used examples drawn from Game Of Thrones. This got to be enough of a thing that I was asked to develop a cut-down version as a taster lecture to give to propsective students, which you can watch here if you like:

Since this is a blog about the anthropology of business, and about science fiction and fantasy, I’m building on this to do a series of posts focusing on different characters in Game of Thrones, and how their story relates to what we know about leadership.

This week: Daenarys Targaryen, and the pros and cons of charisma.

 

The charismatic leader: Daenarys Targaryen

We’ll begin our series on Leadership in Game of Thrones with a look at behavioural theories of leadership. ThesGame of Thrones Daenerys Wallpaper - WallpaperSafarie are the sorts of theories that you tend to find, subtextually or textually, running through airport books that tell you how to Find Your Own Leadership Potential or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or whatever.

Behavioural theories like to break leaders down into types. One of the most commonly encountered typologies divides leaders, or leadership behaviour, into Charismatic, Transactional and Transformational leaders.

We’ll talk about the other two later, but to start with, I’d like to consider Daenarys Targaryen as an example of the charismatic leader.

Charismatic leadership is a perhaps surprisingly old concept, initially developed by pioneering organisational sociologist Max Weber in the 1920s. His idea was that charismatic leadership was when authority derived from the charisma of the leader, as opposed to through the law or through tradition.

This fits Daenarys perfectly: her claim to governance of anything, let alone Westeros, completely flies in the face of tradition (pretty much every society she’s in contact with accepting female leaders only under extremely unusual circumstances), and is of dubious legality (she’s admittedly the sole surviving member of the former ruling house of Westeros, in a society that values primogeniture– but, like the medieval societies it’s based on, it doesn’t value it to the point of being stupid, which is why most of Westerosi society clearly supports the rule of Robert Baratheon, who’s older, male, and has the support of the feudal lords, instead of a thirteen-year-old girl who’s never set foot in the country).

Much of what she subsequently builds her power base on is, initially, derived from personal charisma. The fact that she’s able to build a bond with the man she’s been married to for political reasons and get him on side for a counter-coup; her ability to then get enough of his followers to support her independently, against all of their, yes, laws and traditions, when he dies (stunts involving dragons and being immune to fire help, but they’re not everything).

The concept was further developed in the 1970s by Robert J. House, who focused on charismatic leadership as a psychological profile, and portrayed charismatic leaders as ones who build up excitement in their followers and empower them to seek to do better things for the organisation, as can be seen when Daenarys conquers Meereen with the army of the Unsullied. Charismatic leaders also build up bonds with their followers, and you can see that in Daenarys’ relationships with Grey Worm, Missandei, Tyrion and Jorah Mormont. Her charisma even bleeds out into the audience: just google her name, or check out the amount of Targaryen tat on Etsy, Ebay and the like, for evidence

A lot of leadership books like the idea of charismatic leaders, so you see a lot of the abovementioned airport books urging you to develop your own charisma and become a charismatic leader. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though. As another organisation studies scholar, Dennis Tourish, pointed out, bad leaders have the same traits as good ones, and you only have to look at Daenarys’ trajectory to see the bad aspects as well: bullying, monomania, a tendency to abuse the trust and respect her followers have in her (honestly, Mormont, leave her, she’s not worth it). Daenarys also has elements of the “crisis leader” as well, in that she clearly has issues coping with the day-to-day business of ruling rather than the ones that involve making proclamations. Which probably won’t help should she find herself actually having to be Queen of Westeros.

So on the one hand, it’s a good thing for her that she’s surrounded herself with other leaders with compatible skill sets and social capital, like Tyrion and Jon Snow. On the other… she’d better learn how to negotiate and compromise as well as charm, because charisma, while it may be sexy, isn’t everything in a good leader.