Contingency-based leadership theory: The High Sparrow

Last session, we looked at behavioural theories of leadership. The tl;dr for this time is that the firstHigh_Sparrow theories of leadership were focused on the idea that there were definable and more or less universal leadership traits, which could be identified and classified; and these could, possibly, also be learned/taught, depending on your beliefs about the effectiveness of cognitive behavioural therapy.

As we concluded, also, there’s a few problems with this way of approaching leadership. Leaving aside the cognitive behavioural therapy issue, as businesses began to globalise researchers began to question the idea that leadership traits could, in fact, be universal: as we’ve seen in Game of Thrones, the skills you need to be Khal of the Dothraki are clearly not the skills needed to be Warden of the North or Hand of the King. Many other researchers, including but not limited to feminist and postmodernist scholars, questioned the degree to which such traits could even be identified; consider that in Westeros, Cersei’s leadership abilities were largely ignored by everyone except the audience for six seasons. Most importantly, any researchers generally argued that behavioural theories as structured appear to take place in a vacuum, without reference to the wider circumstancers in which leaders actually lead. Or, to put it another way, you can be Queen of Meeren only as long as the people aren’t actually in open revolt against you.

This led to more contingency-based theories of leadership. As the name suggests, their unifying premise is that different times call for different leaders, and the people who lead are determined by the circumstances in which they arise.

A good example in Westeros is the High Sparrow. Under normal circumstances, the High Sparrow is unlikely to have risen any, well, higher than a local priest or travelling mendicant; people who are comfortable, well-fed and happy with their circumstances don’t generally wind up joining charismatic religious movements. However, with the rulership of the kingdom in turmoil, many people clearly questioning the fitness of the nobility to govern (as we see in the satirical play that Arya witnesses on Braavos), the population in such economically dire straits as to starve for want of a small amount of money, and the church which supports the system clearly corrupt and in hock to the nobles, people are willing to listen to outsiders who seem to offer an alternative way of living.

Game of Thrones leaves unanswered the question of whether or not the High Sparrow would have made a better ruler than the Lannisters or Targaryens; certainly there was potential in his movement for a tyrannical fascist theocracy to arise, but there was also potential for a regime in which peasants led longer and happier lives (consider what might have happened had his alliance with Margaery Tyrell succeeded). And the High Sparrow also fits the behavioural theories of leadership in having many of the traits of the charismatic leader, for instance. But, as the critics of the behavioural theories argue, having the traits is not enough: you need the circumstances as well. The High Sparrow is only one of many cases in Westeros which illustrates that behavioural theories need to be tempered with a little context to consider how leaders are made as well as born.

Next week: I’ll be at Eastercon! I’ll try and compose a post beforehand, but if I don’t… next episode will discuss power-based theories of leadership, with a particular focus on Sansa Stark.

Behavioural theories of leadership: Robert Baratheon

With the new series of Game of Thrones in the offing, it’s time to start doing Leadership lessons from Westeros again…

After reading the title of this installment,  you are probably thinking “Wait, Robert Baratheon was no kind of leader!” Bear with me, though, that’s the point. However, I’m going to be taking a little while to get to it. First we’ve got to delve back into organisation studies.

The leadership theories we’ve been covering over the past three sessions are all what we call “behavioural theories of leadership”. What they have in common is that they generally assume that a) there are leaders (as opposed to followers); b) leaders can be identified and classified into types; c) those types can be defined by certain ways of behaving.

Because management studies is supposed to be about helping people to run their organisations better (through SCIENCE!), however, we then go a couple of steps further. The first is that you should be able to identify leaders through their personal traits, even at a fairly early stage, and get them on the path to running things.

We can see this in action in Game of Thrones when Jeor Mormont identifies Jon Snow as a potential leadership candidate early on in his time with the Night’s Watch, and clearly puts him into what people like me refer to as the “leadership pipeline” (of which, more later).

The second step is that, just as one can learn new ways of behaving through cognitive behavioural therapy and similar, one can turn oneself into a leader through learning what these traits are and copying them.

To switch franchises for a moment: there’s a scene in Star Trek: Discovery where the ships’ first officer, Saru, winds up as acting captain of the ship. Being, at this point in the narrative, more of the passive-aggressive than the take-charge sort, he goes into the ready room, shuts the door, and asks the computer for a list of the most successful captains in Starfleet. He then asks the computer to cross-correlate their personality traits and come up with the ideal way to be a leader.

However, there are a few problems with the basic premise, and the two corollaries. For one thing, it’s a problematic thing to split the world into Leaders and Followers. In the cases we’ve looked at so far, there have been situations where the characters have led… and where they’ve followed. Tyrion has never held a top-level leadership position, except temporarily and by accident. Daenarys spends most of the first book (and/or season) literally leading no one, even by virtue of charisma.

Which brings us to another problem. Inasmuch as leadership qualities exist, they can also be overlooked, just because the person possessing them has the wrong set of gonads, or is the wrong height. Jon, as Mormont himself notes, might not have stood out as a potential leader quite so quickly if he hadn’t had the benefits of being brought up at Winterfell among the Starks and learning alongside his ostensible half-brothers. This is to say nothing of cases like Bran and Theon, where potential leaders wind up out of the pipeline (and, in both cases, back in, just in a different sector) through reasons completely unrelated to their leadership qualities or not. So: you can’t just consider behaviour, without considering other social factors.

The second… well, here’s where Robert Baratheon comes back in.

Robert is, in many ways, doing everything right as far as being King of Westeros is concerned. He’s the right gender, and the right age. He came to the throne by what are, if not necessarily desirable, at least acceptable means of succession in Westerosi terms. He’s not hugely smart, but he does have a sense of his own limitations and is good at recruiting a team which compensates for them.

And he can be a good leader in the right conditions. There’s a reason why he spends most of the first season drinking with his old war buddy Ned, and reminiscing about the campaign (beyond the fact that the writers need some way of conveying the backstory to the series in a not-too-boring fashion): He was a good leader in wartime. He’s still got those same traits, too. But he’s just not the sort of guy who can lead a country in peacetime. For instance: it’s perfectly true that if he had succeeded in getting Daenarys assassinated early on, it would have saved everyone a lot of fuss and bother later. But it’s also true that assassinating teenage girls who don’t even live on your continent, in peacetime, is the sort of thing that tends to get the Hand of the King remonstrating with you in public, creating political splits that the more ruthless members of your administration can exploit the hell out of.

And, in the end, of course, he turns out to have rather less in the way of political savvy than his own wife.

So, the case of Robert Baratheon (and indeed the case of Saru, over in the other franchise) shows that, while the three types of leaders we’ve been talking about are a good place to start from, there are dangers in leaning on that particular theory too far.

Next time, we’ll be looking at contingency-based theories of leadership, taking the High Sparrow as our case study.

Transactional leadership: Tyrion Lannister

'Game of Thrones' director on why Tyrion is worried about ...We conclude our introductory tour around the leadership trifecta of “Game of Thrones” with a look at Tyrion Lannister, the transactional leader (for those just joining us: charismatic and transformational leadership are covered in earlier articles).

Much as Tyrion himself doesn’t tend to get much love from his siblings and father, transactional leadership generally doesn’t tend to get much good press in the popular management textbook world. It’s another of Max Weber’s coinages and, as contrasted to the charismatic leader who leads through charisma and force of will, the transactional leader is one who gets things done through, well, transactions with his or her followers: if I do this, then you will do that. Subordinates are kept in line with a system of rewards and punishments, and transactional leaders can’t necessarily count on their love, or their support during the tough times. Transactional leaders can often, however, count on trust; these are generally leaders who make promises and, if you hold up your end of the bargain, they’ll hold up theirs. Transactional leaders are organised, and performance-focused, which means that they’re often the ones who get the results that the sexier leaders don’t, because they’ve worked their subordinates to burnout or have spent too much time wrangling their team to address ongoing concerns of day-to-day management. Transactional leaders tend to be self-motivated, and prefer subordinates who are likewise inclined to go away, do their part, and come back with the results.

Tyrion’s not unappealing (he’s got the best lines in the series, for a start), but as leaders go he’s not particularly charismatic. Although he’s been on the battlefield, and successfully, several times, people tend to forget about that. What he’s famous for is, in his own words, that “I drink, and I know things.” But that last phrase gives us his strength as a leader: he’s competent. He has no illusions about his charisma, but he knows what will motivate people to do what he wants. When Joffrey, the charismatic leader (yes, he is; we’ll be talking about him later) is paralysed with fear, he’s the one who takes over and competently runs the Battle of Black Water into a Lannister victory. Tyrion does all right when he doesn’t have followers, or support; he’s as much at home pursuing a solo quest to find Daenarys as he is at the head of an organisation.

If Tyrion winds up on the Iron Throne– and that’s a distinct possibility– he won’t have got there through charisma, and looks, and social capital. He’ll have got there through careful deal-making and knowing things. Because if that’s his goal, he’ll look at what he needs to do to achieve it… and do it.

Next up: before we go on to consider paths to leadership in Westeros, I’ll take you through a brief overview of two schools of thought about leadership: behavioural and contingent.

Transformational leadership: Jon Snow

Picking up the Leadership in Game of Thrones thread again and moving on from last episode’s discussion of Daenarys Targaryen as an example of charismatic leadership, this time we’ll be looking at the concept of the transformational leader, as exemplified in Game of Thrones by Jon Snow.

Onjon snow - Free Large Images the surface of it, Jon Snow looks like another charismatic leader. As with Daenarys, he’s good-looking, knows his way around an epic speech, and people follow him even though he’s young, illegitimate, and has handed away any chance that he might inherit via a sidewise route to power (we’ll be talking about Ramsay Snow/Bolton and his alternative career path later in this series) by joining what is effectively a militant monastic order.

The key difference between him and Dany, though, is that he helps the people under his leadership to develop. Consider his relationship with Sam; while he teaches him swordsmanship, he also allows Sam to figure out what skills and abilities he can best contribute to the Nights’ Watch, and steers him towards becoming a scholar rather than just another man with a big stick on top of a wall. When Jon leaves the Nights’ Watch under the command of Dolorous Edd, you really do believe that, through Jon, Edd has developed to the point where this wouldn’t be a completely disastrous idea. Where people develop through Daenarys’s actions, it’s largely by accident or through the results of something she’s done rather than through her active sponsorship; she frees Grey Worm, but, if anyone helps him to develop his skills as a leader, it’s Missandei, not Daenarys. Which is the key point of a transformational, rather than a charismatic leader; that they help the people around them to “transform”.

They also come into their own as change managers, and this can certainly be seen to be true of Jon Snow. Almost every organisation he comes into contact with, he changes, and for the better; he’s got two groups of historic enemies working together, he’s developed an alliance with Daenarys. He’s been instrumental in getting the Northerners to accept his sister Sansa as their ruler. It’s no wonder Jeor Mormont marks him early on as a possible successor as the commander of the Nights’ Watch, above people with greater experience and seniority.

Given all this, a transformational leader might seem more than a little heroic. But that’s not necessarily the case. Transformational leaders, Jon to the contrary notwithstanding, aren’t inherently charismatic. Transformational leadership involves working with people to figure out what change is needed, and to deliver it, meaning that it involves giving way and compromising a lot more than traditional charismatic leadership does. Notice how Jon leads through building alliances and developing trust, not through railroading his way across two continents with a trio of magic beasts and an army of super-tough eunuchs. It also doesn’t make you stronger, or a better human, or smarter, than anyone else. Or to put it another way: Jon Snow’s transformational… but so, in her way, is Cersei Lannister.

Transformational leadership has become a very popular idea in management studies recently, and managers are being urged to be, or to become, transformational leaders (through reading a certain book or taking a certain course, naturally). In some ways, this is a good thing; the business world is currently in a period of upheaval, change is in the air, and the sort of leaders that are needed right now are often change managers. Problem is, this isn’t always true. In periods, and places, where change isn’t needed, your transformational leader becomes a micro-manager, constantly trying to fix what isn’t broken.

Transformational leaders are much nicer than charismatic ones from the perspective of the led– but, in an organisational setting, there’s nothing that makes transformational leadership inherently any better than any other sort of leadership. Context matters a lot to successful leadership, and transformational leaders are at their best when weathering change, not leading a charge or keeping an organisation going. In the end, given the amount of change going on in Westeros right now, Jon Snow is the man of the hour. And now, you know something.

Next time: Tyrion Lannister and transactional leadership.

 

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.