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.

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.

 

Free short story!

Now, on the Mad Scientist Journal website, you can read my short story “Every Little Star” for free. It’s part of a series which is one part Gerry and Sylvia Anderson to one part Quatermass to one part 1950s lesbian pulp novels– featuring the adventures of a moonbase commander battling terrorism, glass ceilings and post-traumatic stress disorder, through the medium of virtual reality….

Driving Ambition: Where To Get It

Driving Ambition! It’s a novel of murder, labour relations and self-driving cars!

If you want a dead tree version, the link here will take you to the publisher’s website.

If you want a version in pixels, click here for Kindle and here for Kobo, and here for a DRM-free version for those of you who know what to do with one of those.

The audiobook is available here.

For content previews, you can of course read a sample on Amazon, and you can also see me reading Chapter One here.

And if you want to buy one direct from the author– just flag me down at any event I’m attending!

Interview at the BSFA

Missed my interview at the British Science Fiction Associaton’s October meeting? Want to learn more about Driving Ambition and what makes me write? View it here:

Or, if you just want the audio version:

UPDATE: Possibly more accessible video now available:

Driving Ambition on Kobo and Kindle

Driving Ambition is now available to download for the Kobo and the Kindle– arguably a good way to read a book about virtual systems, artificial intelligences, and beings who exist only online.

Print copies will be available later, and I’ll post ordering links when that happens.

Here’s the link for the Kobo version, and here’s the link for the Kindle version.