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.

 

Haw Par Villa, Singapore: A Photoessay

I go to Singapore to teach at least once a year, which is good, because I like Singapore. And one of the most amazing things in Singapore is Haw Par Villa. Which, because it largely defies description, I’m going to show you in pictures rather than telling a funny story.

What most people know about Haw Par Villa, if they know anything at all about it, is its famous set of dioramas depicting the Seven Hells of Buddhist folklore. And yes, you certainly can see the damned facing horrible forms of punishment:

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Which, apparently, their victims can watch before going on to their own judgment, which seems rather schadenfreude-heavy to me:
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But that’s, if anything, the most conventional part of the park. For one thing, the park was set up by the people who invented (or packaged and marketed, anyway) Tiger Balm, and one can occasionally run into the ghosts of Tiger Balm mascots past:
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Or a pitched battle between the rats and the rabbits, no, I don’t know either.

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Or scenes from Chinese legends, some recognisable, some less so (even to people in the relevant culture; Malay Chinese friends I’ve asked have struggled to explain some of these).IMG_0552IMG_0567

(this one’s from Journey to the West: Pigsy at his most terrifying)IMG_0639

(According to the plaque, this one depicts the Seven Lucky Gods doing battle with Neptune, who must have wandered in from some other mythological canon)IMG_0667

Then there’s the anthropomorphic animals, similarly ranging from the cute to the disturbing:

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OK, mostly the disturbing.IMG_0610

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There are also more conventionally represented animals, albeit, one suspects, rendered by a sculptor who’s never actually seen one:
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Along with some really quite beautiful gods and heroes

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And, finally, you can take a trip round the monuments of the world!IMG_0668

If you’re in Singapore and want to visit for yourself, here’s a map. There’s way more than I could put in a single blog post, so do go see it.

On lanyards and personal identity

A friend recently observed that the current trend for wearing lanyards with ID cards seems to have aspects of identity performance: a way of visually indicating that you have a job, that you belong somewhere. That’s certainly true, but it can be rather complicated.

In 2012, I was working at a London university which had a noticeable occupational divide regarding lanyards and ID cards: Admin staff wore them, faculty did not. Both groups used their ID cards about as often as each other, but faculty generally carried them in wallets or pockets.

Then came the London 2012 Olympics. Before the event, orders came down that everyone on staff– regardless of pay grade– had to wear their ID card on a lanyard at all times, for security reasons.

Well, I thought, this will be interesting.  Because I was certain this divide was one of those things that isn’t a conscious part of your identity performance, but that is important nonetheless, and when you disrupt those, people are often uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain (Kate Fox, in Watching The English, is worth reading for how she explores and exploits this sort of social reaction). So I decided to watch what happened.

Sure enough, faculty dutifully put their ID cards on lanyards… and carried them in their hands. Or pockets. Or put them on just long enough to get from their office to the classroom before taking them off and leaving them to the side.

For my own part, even being aware of all this… I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable myself when I put on my lanyard. Like I was dressing up as something I wasn’t. I noticed that, like all the faculty, I was taking it off as often as I could. I knew why, but it wasn’t stopping me doing it.

What’s to take away from all this? Partly that organisational identity’s a complicated, organic thing that can be expressed in unexpected ways. But also that even something as seemingly neutral as wearing a lanyard can take on significance, and, when that happens, it’s a good idea to pay attention.