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.

Leadership Lessons From Game Of Thrones Special: The Battle of Winterfell, or How Not To Lead

Last time,  I said the next entry would be about alternative career patimagehs and Ramsay Bolton. Well, forget that, because I watched “The Battle of Winterfell” at the weekend, and I think we need to take a moment to talk about it.

People who know more about tactics than I do have written about the problems with that aspect of it, so I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of what’s wrong with it militarily. However, I have spent a while talking about leadership on Westeros, and so I feel compelled to point out that this whole episode is a pretty good example of how not to do leadership.

1) Failure to designate authority. Who, exactly, was in charge of that battle? You don’t always need a clear, hierarchical chain of command, and in this case they’d evidently decided on doing the battle in small autonomous units rather than according to an overall plan, but you do need some allocation of responsibilities. The only people who seemed to have someone in charge and directing things were the Unsullied, and of course no one else noticed what Grey Worm was doing, because it seems the Westerosi are racist (while I’ll be coming back to this in a future post, this is a very good example of the problems poor diversity management can cause for any organisation). Jon and Daenarys may be up on the dragons and Tyrion and Sansa in the crypts (on which, more later), but Edd, Jaime, Brienne and Torvald are all perfectly capable of directing a battle better than they do here.

2) No system for operating at multiple levels. It’s helpful to leadership if they’re able to understand the big picture, and the smaller one, so as to get everyone on the ground level working towards a larger goal. While the dragonriding team can’t communicate with the ground, this is where Bran’s ability to warg into ravens could have provided a useful asset. Mind you, the lack of people in authority might make it hard to figure out who to pass the information on to.

3) Lack of flexibility. Almost any operation needs fine-tuning as it goes along, whether it’s an audit, an acquisition, or a battle for your lives against the zombie hordes. Nobody at Winterfell appears to be showing any interest in deviating from the previously-worked-out plan, staring dumbly as the wights figure out how to get over the firewall.

4) Failure to utilize available skills. Tyrion, in the crypt, has evidently figured out Problem #2, and mutters about how he and Varys ought to be out there helping to guide the battle. Sansa shoots him down on that one, but he’s actually perfectly right. None of those three are fighters, but Tyrion at least is good at thinking of tactics on the fly, and they’re all intelligent people, and yet they’re all locked up in the crypt where they can’t actually be of any use to anyone. Not that it would matter much, because there’s also the problem of…

5) Poor communications. If you’ve got the person, or people, up in the tower, surveying the field and coming up with changes as needed, you need some system to communicate those to the people on the front lines. This is why there were drum and bugle signals in earlier times. Now, it’s a fair point that you’re assembling a force that’s quite diverse in terms of its tactics and background, but it’s not an insurmountable problem, since presumably everyone, in this case, is on board with the basic mission and wants to complete it without dying.

So, the Battle of Winterfell is not just a failure of tactics, or dragon-wrangling, but of leadership. Next time: I really will get around to Ramsay Bolton, I promise.

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.