I’m at Eastercon this weekend! It’s online (albeit on British Summer Time) so please come join me at https://confusion2021.uk for the events below!
Some exciting news just dropped. To celebrate becoming a monthly magazine, Shoreline of Infinity are making next issue pay-what-you-can (including free)– and it includes my story The Ghosts of Trees!
If a story about eerie supernatural happenings on a terraforming project in the Nevada Desert sounds like your thing, get your copy for whatever you want to pay at this link.
For your convenience, here’s a handy index to the Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones posts, in chronological order.
Just a quick note to say that Best Of British SF 2018 is now available to preorder on Kindle (ahead of the wider release next month)– buy it and enjoy my story “Doomed Youth”, a tale of populist politicians and giant ants.
Our tour of Westeros and leadership is, for the moment at least, coming to an end, so it’s worth pausing to do some summarising, particularly in the context of how Game of Thrones itself ended.
<MORE SPOILERS THAN USUAL WARNING. THERE, THAT’S OUT OF THE WAY>
A common thread running through a lot of the posts has been the rigidity of the progression system in Westeros, and the problems this can cause. Evidently the people of Westeros have noticed this too, given that the finale first literally destroys the Iron Throne with fire, and then has the surviving leaders adopt a new promotion pathway system which goes some way towards fixing these problems. Interestingly, Bran the Broken has an amalgam of traits from the old pathway, being the eldest surviving male offspring of someone with a reasonable claim to the throne, and from a more inclusive (and thus flexible) paradigm, being disabled, infertile, and, technically, a religious leader.
He also seems to be, at the moment anyway, primarily a transactional leader. Which makes sense: charismatic leaders tend to flourish in crisis conditions. Quite possibly he’ll also prove transformational, but in a slow, gradual way as the country rebuilds.
The new system still has some obvious problems. There still doesn’t seem to be any way to remove a toxic leader short of killing them, for one thing. For another, leaders may be collectively chosen, but it’s by the nobility, and that’s an easily hackable system that a future Ramsay Bolton might turn to their advantage. It’s still a system that’s likely to favour non-disabled ethnic majority males regardless of their ability or lack of it, as any researcher who follows the power-based school of leadership theory might be quick to point out.
There are also a lot of untold leadership stories hanging around the fringes of the episode. For a start, while I’m very much in favour of Sansa Stark getting formally recognised as a queen, there’s not much discussion of how the North will rebuild, what sort of succession system she’s planning, or how relations with the rest of the country will proceed in a situation where its monarch isn’t her blood relative. And speaking of leadership stories yet to be told, I would very much like to know what sort of a time Yara Greyjoy is having in terms of hanging on to leadership of the Iron Islands.
But still, as endings go, it’s probably a better one than most of the leadership of Westeros deserve.
This ends the Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones series, unless obviously something new comes up to merit a revival. I’ll post a comprehensive index to posts later, and I’m planning another academic SF blog series soon, but for now, thanks for reading!
We’ve already discussed gender and leadership in this series to some extent, but largely in the context of femaleness as a barrier to leadership (and fertile maleness as a prerequisite for it). However, in this case I’m going to frame it in terms of cultural variation.
My own particular academic interest in leadership is in the context of cross-cultural management. Specifically, the fact that what makes an acceptable leader varies from place to place, as we can see with the issue of gender in Westeros. While most places seem to follow the practice identified earlier– oldest male offspring inherits, followed by his sons and brothers, followed by daughters and sisters in cases where there are no male heirs, plus female regents if the male heir is underage or incapacitated– there are variations, for instance Dorne which practices primogeniture regardless of the gender of the child (a fact which was largely not discussed on the TV programme, but never mind)– and, of course, the Iron Islands, where women are not allowed to rule, full stop.
Which is also interesting because women are clearly allowed other forms of leadership role: nobody seems to have much of a problem with Yara commanding a pirate ship, for instance.
But the case of Yara also raises another issue with regard to gender and leadership. In some societies with strongly differentiated gender roles, the problem of what to do when you have too many children of one gender and not enough of the other, is solved by raising some of the children as “socially” of the other gender. Examples include traditional Inuit society, and the “sworn virgins” of Albania. Please note that this is not, as a practice, analogous to being transgender: the sworn virgins are not seen as being “male,” but as women taking a male role.
Yara, in Game of Thrones, seems tacitly like the Westerosi equivalent. She’s acknowledged to be female, but she dresses like a man; she commands a ship like a man; and she grew up in a situation where one of her brothers was dead and the other being raised by the Starks as a hostage. Needing, if not a male heir, at least someone who could take on the duties associated with one, it’s no surprise that Balon Greyjoy turned to his daughter to fulfil this role.
Furthermore, the thing which bars her surviving brother, Theon, from challenging her bid for leadership is that he’s a eunuch. Eunuchs on Westeros are in a similarly ambivalent gender position: socially male in many ways, they are also denied traditional male pathways to leadership, though they can wield a lot of of “soft power” in part because they are inherently infertile and thus do not have a stake in the inheritance system.
All of which is a lengthy and analogous way of saying that not only is gender and leadership viewed differently in different societies (again calling into question the idea that there are fixed sets of leadership traits which are always identifiable and always the best way of choosing or training a leader), but also that the gender binary which is taken for granted in a lot of the business literature (remember that management studies as a discipline first arose in the USA in the mid-twentieth century) is far from universal. Something worth remembering when choosing who will represent your business interests in other countries… or if you want to open a branch office in Westeros.
Next time: a farewell to Westeros, a consideration of what the series finale says about governance, and a little summary of all we have learned about leadership so far.
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 book 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.
To recap from the discussion of Robb Stark, the Baratheon Brothers, and why male sexuality matters in Westeros two weeks ago: legitimate career progression is a pretty straightforward thing in Westeros, on the face of it. To become a leader, you have to be the eldest surviving legitimate son of the current/former leader.
However, as in any organisation, the official career path is not the only one. It’s worth noting that at the outset of the final season, literally no leader in Westeros (or even Essos or Braavos), aside from Jon Snow, actually fits the official criteria for political leadership. Admittedly, there is a bloody civil war going on, but the means for alternative forms of progression usually has to be in place before a crisis of that magnitude hits.
The main alternative form of progression, as discussed before, is through murdering the incumbent. However, as we also discussed before, this is a problematic means of progression, for the obvious reason that a healthy society needs to discourage people from killing their leaders. Hence the reason why Jaime Lannister couldn’t take the throne; why Robert Baratheon had to fit as many of the other criteria for leadership as possible (or seem to, at any rate); and why his leadership was problematic nonetheless.
Some Westerosi organisations do offer different pathways to promotion. The church, the Maesters, and the Night’s Watch, of necessity, have leadership pathways that are more or less merit-based. However, they’re also more rigid on the gender front than the nobility (women can rule, if problematically, under some circumstances; women can never be Maesters or join the Night’s Watch, and septas clearly rank well below septons in the church), making these organisations at once more and less flexible in a crisis. Furthermore, in all cases they’re barred from political leadership under all but the most extreme circumstances; the High Sparrow may have come rather close to establishing theocratic rule in Westeros, but that was more a sign of how badly the established order had broken down than anything normal and legitimate.
This brings us to the case of Ramsay Snow, later Bolton, and how his career demonstrates the existence of at least one alternative pathway to leadership beyond staging a coup. At the outset of his storyline, Ramsay Snow’s status as an illegitimate son bars him from leadership; however, he makes himself useful enough to his ostensible father, Roose, that the latter has him officially declared legitimate (and Ramsay also makes certain that his father has no other surviving offspring which might supplant him).
Furthermore, both Boltons take advantage of the fact that the near-total extermination of the Starks (and the absence of the surviving family members) has left a power vacuum in the North. However, while arguably might would make right in those circumstances, clearly other factors are helpful; Theon Greyjoy’s attempt to take over Winterfell by claiming to have murdered the two younger Starks only left him with a tenuous claim at best, while Ramsay’s marriage to Sansa, given the rule about governance passing to female offspring in the absence of surviving fertile males, gave him more of a social claim to the North.
Of course, none of this is to mention that Ramsay is also a psychopath, who nobody sane would want in charge of a church raffle let alone one-seventh of a country. Given that not only did Roose Bolton break the rule against not killing the person you’re taking over from (though admittedly Walder Frey took most of the blame for that) and both Boltons repeatedly break rules of hospitality and truce, and show what any management expert would describe as fairly awful personnel management skills, their governance of Winterfell was inevitably doomed to be short term.
But that takes us to next week’s subject, toxic leadership, so we’ll leave matters there.
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.
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.