For your convenience, here’s a handy index to the Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones posts, in chronological order.
For your convenience, here’s a handy index to the Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones posts, in chronological order.
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.
Last time, I said the next entry would be about alternative career paths 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.
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.
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.
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.
On 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.