One of the problems with teaching organisation studies, is that people assume that the principles apply only to modern organisations. Businesses, and maybe to a lesser extent other organisations like charities, NGOs, public sector institutions, and so forth. While it’s true that organisation studies were developed with those in mind, that doesn’t mean you can’t see similar principles in action elsewhere.
Take the case of pathways to leadership. All organisations have them, whether they’re a Fortune 500 company, a grassroots campaign to save a local monument… or a medieval-ish fantasy kingdom embroiled in intermittent bloody civil wars.
The conventional criteria for becoming a leader in Westeros are generally pretty simple. You have to be the oldest surviving legitimate (and able-bodied) male offspring of the current leader. There are variations: in Dorne, for instance, gender isn’t a criterion for leadership (though legitimacy and survival certainly are), and the case of Jorah Mormont shows that you can be formally barred from leadership despite meeting all those criteria.
Hence our case study of Robb Stark, who, after the death of Ned, is, as his oldest son, unproblematically accepted as Warden of the North.
A less explicit criterion, though, is that the man in question also has to be fertile, and, ideally, has to demonstrate this with actual (or potential) offspring. While we’ll be exploring the complicated issue of gender and leadership later, this is why eunuchs, while they can be socially “male” in other ways, are unequivocably barred from formal leadership pathways. More than that, though, the offspring also have to be, ideally, from the right woman. Namely, your wife. We’ll call this the “sexuality rule”.
The driving force behind the entire plot of Game of Thrones, however, is that this pathway is so rigid that exceptions to the rule, however minor or justified, are always problematic. There’s a clear rule that, in the absence of legitimate male offspring, succession passes to female offspring, but the leadership of every single female leader has been problematic and challenged (it’s worth noting that, in “The Last of the Starks”, Bran is seriously suggested as a more legitimate ruler for Winterfell than Sansa, despite being disabled, not wanting the post, and having shown literally no leadership skills at all at any point in the series). More to the point, while everyone seems to accept that it was necessary to murder the Mad King and that Robert Baratheon was the most acceptable candidate to serve as a replacement, his leadership is, as discussed before, weak and problematic; the fact that, despite appearances, he has no legitimate offspring, is as much a metaphor for the problems with him as a monarch as it is a reason for the rest of the country to plunge into chaos on his death.
Which then brings us to Robert’s siblings. Under circumstances in which Robert had come to the throne via the usual pathway, then his brothers would be logical candidates for succession in the absence of legitimate male offspring. The problem is, Robert didn’t. So neither Stannis nor Renly have as much of a legitimate claim to the throne as they would under normal circumstances. Hence the fact that both brothers are contesting the throne, rather than it passing relatively unproblematically to the eldest.
Renly is further problematised under the unspoken sexuality rule. Which is half of the reason why his wife Margaery urges him to get her pregnant as soon as possible. Significantly for our topic here, the other reason is that one of the ways in which women can legitimately govern is as regents for under-age male offspring (hence Cersei’s path to leadership), but again, we’ll be discussing that later. For this post, it’s worth noting that this is why I’m calling this a sexuality rule, rather than a fertility rule– Renly may well be fertile, but his homosexuality means he’s reluctant to produce legitimate (or indeed any) offspring, in much the same way that the problem with his brother Robert’s offspring isn’t biological, but down to the animosity between him and his wife.
Furthermore, the fact that Robert’s succeeding to the throne through murdering the incumbent was accepted as legitimate, throws open the door for conquest becoming another legitimate path to the throne. Hence the fact that Robb himself also contests the leadership of the Seven Kingdoms.
And the sexuality rule also, ultimately, calls into question Robb Stark’s own seemingly unproblematic claim to leadership. Because although he does have legitimate offspring (or at least potential offspring), he’s actually married the wrong woman.
The point of Robb’s insistence on marrying for love, and consequently breaking his agreement with the Freys, is that, in one fatal way, he’s unsuited for leadership. As his mother Catelyn– herself married off to cement a political alliance– knows, part of being a leader in Westeros means sublimating your personal relationships (and, as Renly also fails to observe, sexuality) to the system of marital alliances which dominates the country. So, as with the war of succession following Robert’s demise, Robb’s fate during the Red Wedding stems from his failure to follow the rules of the leadership pipeline as much as from Walder Frey’s desire for revenge.
The lesson for Westeros watchers? There’s been a lot written about Westeros being focused on the control of female sexuality, but it’s worth noting that male sexuality, is also subject to strict, if tacit, controls.
The lesson for non-Westerosi organisations? Don’t be too rigid when developing your leadership pathways, and ensure that at least some of the less traditional ones are recognised and accepted as legitimate.
Next episode: alternative pathways to leadership, with the Bastard of Bolton.
From this month’s Short Fiction reviews in Locus:
“I especially want to highlight an alternate-history piece by Fiona Moore: ‘‘Every Little Star’’ imagines an alternate timeline of space travel where Ludmilla Kovalenko was the first human launched into space (but not successfully returned). She inspired breakthroughs in both technology and the gender barrier, and Captain Evangeline Artemisia Quelch (Artie) is a former space pilot now commanding a moon base, although she still has to deal with the condescendingly sexist press. Her heroic exploits have left her with lingering claustrophobia, and she is now somewhat uneasily settled into a desk job; a friend’s invention of a kind of rudimentary VR reopens her horizons. It’s a great story, well thought out and well dramatized.”
If you haven’t read it yet, you can do so for free here.
My latest academic article, “‘National culture’ as an integrating agent in the post-acquisition organisation” is now available online in advance of publication in International Journal of Human Resource Management.
You can read it at the link here.
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.
Last session, we looked at behavioural theories of leadership. The tl;dr for this time is that the first 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.