Team Leadership in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon: The full version!

Earlier this year, readers of this blog may recall, I had an article appear on The Conversation, tying in with Management Lessons from Game of Thrones, entitled “Six models of successful team leadership from Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon.” I mentioned at the time that I’d originally submitted a longer piece. Which, as today is my birthday (legit, it is!) I’m now making available here. Enjoy additional unhinged-Targaryen and charismatic-preacher content!

Eight Paths to Successful Team Leadership from Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon

As anybody who’s ever been in a leadership position knows, no single style fits every situation! In my book Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, I show how managers can learn from how various characters in Game of Thrones tackled and overcame their leadership and team management problems using strategies that fit their personalities and situations. If you’re struggling with a team management project, here are eight different approaches from Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon that might help you find your perfect leadership style.

That time a thing I wrote was on the front page of a news website.
  1. 1. Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys is a a charismatic leader, someone who inspires others simply by the force of her personality and vision. However, she clearly finds the day-to-day business of management boring and is always looking for new challenges.

In a team management situation, you’d want Daenerys in charge whenever quick and drastic decisions need to be made, and when you need the team to be united and following a specific plan or vision. Bringing a new and controversial product to market on time, for instance, or carrying out a project with a certain element of risk.

2. Jon Snow

Jon Snow is a transformational leader: he excels in bringing out the best in the people around him and seeing organizations through time of change. Transformational leaders don’t generally seek out leadership, but are often just what a struggling organization needs to get back on track.

You’d want Jon in charge when a team is having trouble finding form or purpose, or meeting its established goals. Jon would be the sort of leader who can analyse what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are, can organise it to play to its strengths, and focus it away from the problem areas.

3. Tyrion Lannister

Tyrion is a transactional leader, someone who gains the trust of their supporters by making deals and compromises. While he may not be glamourous and exciting, people trust him always to get the job done.

Tyrion would excel in a situation of day-to-day team management, where there is either a project of indefinite duration, or where the projects renew cyclically. You could see Tyrion heading up an audit team or a tax consultancy: something that needs to be done consistently, reliably and well on a regular basis, with plenty of challenges but no surprises.

4. The High Sparrow

The High Sparrow is a contingent leader, someone who moves into a leadership role from an unexpected quarter at a critical time for the organisation. His idealism and dedication inspires loyalty but he can also find himself at the heart of conflict.

The High Sparrow wouldn’t be the first person you’d put in charge of a team, but he’d be the one who steps in when more conventional leadership fails. He usually comes in from the ranks of the team members and is able to use his knowledge of the team’s internal dynamics to refocus the team and give it a direction. However, you might not want him in charge for the long term, in case his personal agenda starts to replace the organisation’s.  

5. Sansa Stark

Because of her gender and her personality, Sansa’s talents are not immediately apparent. She struggles to be accepted in a leadership role, but, when she’s in charge, she’s focused and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. She takes a long view of success and it generally pays off.

Sansa is the person you want in charge of a team working on a project with long-term objectives. She’s also very good at bringing together people with very different interests and getting them to work together over a period of time, and also at taking difficult decisions and sticking by them. The biggest problem you might have with Sansa is that, if you underestimate her, you might lose her to the competition!

7. Daemon Targaryen

Like his distant relative Daenerys, Daemon is a charismatic leader. He clearly inspires the loyalty of the Gold Cloaks and attracts supporters among his extended family. Daemon is also, however, a toxic leader, thinking little of murder and brutality as ways of achieving his ends.

Strangely, sometimes this kind of leadership can have good results! Daemon clearly achieves a number of victories simply through not caring about what other people think, or through treating other people as assets or obstacles without caring about them as human beings. However, this means that Damon is also not somebody you want in charge for a long period of time. He may be able to deliver necessary shock treatment, but he shouldn’t be allowed to keep on delivering it.

8. Corlys Velaryon

Corlys Velaryon is a pragmatic leader. He does what it takes to get the job done, even when this means making questionable alliances or difficult compromises. At times when others are concerned about short-term pride and prestige, he is concerned about the longer term consequences.

Corlys clearly excels in any situation where there is the opportunity to develop a strategy and see it through, and one where difficult, even painful, decisions might need to be made. He can weigh up costs and benefits rationally, and can choose the most appropriate path, even if it involves difficult alliances or accepting the second best option, with a view to pursuing strategic success over a more extended period. 

8. Rhaenyra Targaryen

Rhaenyra provides a good example of what we call “servant leadership”: a leader who puts the needs of the team first and encourages both her followers and her organisation to grow and develops. She accepts that everything she does has to be what’s best for the throne and for her House, and tries to find ways of doing so that make herself and the people around her happy.

Rhaenyra is the sort of person you’d want in charge of any team that needs to develop to meet new challenges, and to stay together while doing so. It’s deeply ironic that she faces so many people opposing her elevation to Queen of Westeros, as she might actually be the most suitable person to lead the country on to greater successes.

Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros is a management textbook with a difference. I examine how characters, organisations and situations in a fictional television series about a fantasy world have, perhaps surprising, parallels to people, organisations and situations in our own world, and how we can learn valuable lessons for our daily working lives from these stories. As well as leadership, the book discusses human resource management, organisation theory, strategy, mergers and acquisitions—and how to manage all of these without resorting to dragonfire! 

Management Lessons from Game of Thrones contributes to The Conversation

I’ve got an article on The Conversation, promoting Management Lessons from Game of Thrones and expanding it with a little House of the Dragon content! Please read and share. 

The original article was about one-third again as long– and it may well be appearing on this blog in future months. Stay tuned!

https://theconversation.com/six-models-of-successful-team-leadership-from-game-of-thrones-and-house-of-the-dragon-192906

Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: The Quiz!

The wonderful people at my university have made up a “Which Game of Thrones Leader Are You?” quiz to promote my book Management Lessons in Game of Thrones! Go on, take it– we don’t send any data back to evil corporations! 

In case you’re wondering, I got Tyrion.

https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/about-us/news/how-game-of-thrones-leaders-can-teach-us-a-thing-or-two-about-management/

Where to Buy Management Lessons From Game of Thrones

This is the management textbook you never knew you wanted, but now you know you have to have it. The hardback has a scary academic price tag, but the paperback has a nice friendly RRP of £20/$30 or equivalent.

Amazon UK link here

Amazon US link here

Buy direct from publisher here

Unfortunately Bookshop.org doesn’t seem to have it, so if you want to buy direct from your local bookshop (and please do) you’ll have to communicate with them directly: the ISBN is 978 1 83910 528 9.

Not sure if you want to buy it or not? Here’s a sample chapter to whet your appetite.

Not that sort of appetite.

“Management Lessons from Game of Thrones” goes to Worldcon!

I can now reveal that I’ll be presenting a paper on “Pathways to Female Leadership in Game of Thrones”, based on some of the work you can find on this blog, at ChiCon8, the 80th World SF Convention, in Chicago this September! I’ll be attending in person, so will also be turning up on various panels and roaming around promoting my new book as well.

You can read my blog series on Leadership in Game of Thrones here, and you can preorder my book on the subject.

Leadership Lessons from GI Joe

Russell A. Smith challenged me to watch GI Joe: Arise, Serpentor, Arise! (follow along at the link) and write about the leadership side of the story. Well, challenge accepted.

Some members of Cobra senior management, and their fetishwear.

The plot, for those of you not wanting to sit through two hours of mid-Eighties American cell animation, is as follows: Doctor Mindbender, a high-ranking and somewhat kinky member of terrorist organisation Cobra, has concerns about the leadership of the organisation by its current shrieky CIC, Cobra Commander. After a trippy dream involving a DNA helix, he decides the best thing for it is to manufacture a Cobra Emperor out of the DNA of various famous past leaders, gets Cobra senior management on side, and spends the next three episodes raiding a bunch of tombs, finally succeeding in producing an individual called Serpentor, of whom more later. GI Joe, allegedly the heroes of the story, singularly fail to prevent any of this happening (even though the Cobra operatives all repeat over and over in very loud voices that they’re after the DNA of historical figures, it takes the Joes several episodes to finally catch on). Owing to an intervention by Joe alpha male Sergeant Slaughter, however, Sun Tzu’s DNA remains uncollected; Doctor Mindbender manages after great effort to obtain Sergeant Slaughter’s instead, but is thwarted in including this in the mix as well. The implication is meant to be that the throughly insane and irrational being which results would have been less so had things gone according to plan, but, given that Sergeant Slaughter is hardly the most stable electron in the atom, one doubts the logic.

…and the ego of Norma Desmond.

It’s hard to know where to start with all this, but perhaps it’s best to begin with the observation that Doctor Mindbender is clearly an advocate of the behaviourist school of leadership: namely, that good leaders have certain traits, which can be acquired, and that acquiring these produces a good leader. Mindbender himself says early on that he intends his creation to have “the military genius of Napoleon; the ferocity of Genghis Khan; the leadership of Alexander; the evil of Ivan The Terrible.” Sun Tzu is of course included because it’s 1986 and every Yuppie worth their brick-sized cell phone is reading The Art of War and convinced, using the same fallacy as Doctor Mindbender, that it’ll make them a better manager. The rest of Mindbender’s wish list includes Montezuma, Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Geronimo, as well as somewhat more dubious examples of leadership as Vlad Tepes, Rasputin, Erik the Red (I don’t know, maybe Doctor Mindbender thinks his creation should have a good sense of direction?) and Xanoth Toth-Amon (allegedly an Egyptian general, but actually a character in Conan The Cimmerian, probably the result of letting a group of English graduates loose on a cartoon series with few instructions other than “mention the new battle tank toy, don’t suggest Vietnam was a bad idea, and try not to include any naughty words”).

Sergeant Slaughter: warrior, motivator, and winner of the All Forces Dance-Off 1986.

However, let’s consider Cobra Commander’s leadership style. While he’s got issues with interpersonal relations, has problems inspiring loyalty among middle management, and really ought to be delegating his military leadership function, he has all the hallmarks of a perfectly good transactional leader. He motivates Scrapiron, Sergeant Slaughter and even Serpentor to do things for him over the course of the story (bargaining with them to do so– a classic transactional-leadership move). He has been doing a pretty good job of getting Cobra outfitted with cool planes, mini-tanks and battle androids thus far, and the only reason Cobra loses the battle at the start of the story is because Sergeant Slaughter appears to be a human mutant capable of smashing said androids with his bare hands, which Cobra Commander could hardly have anticipated. And at the end of the story, the main reason the Cobras lose their battle is that they run out of fuel and ammunition, such logistical considerations apparently being beyond Serpentor.

This rather suggests that what Doctor Mindbender is actually after is charismatic leadership, since this is the main trait that Cobra Commander lacks. It might also make sense of the more unexpected names on his wish-list, such as Rasputin (arguably not much of a leader, but famously popular with the Moscow chicks), and also why he thinks Sergeant Slaughter might make a good candidate for inclusion, since he’s the most charismatic member of GI Joe’s leadership team. And it has to be said, Serpentor certainly is charismatic, inasmuch as the Cobra members all seem irrationally inclined to follow him. The problem is that, as noted elsewhere on this blog, charismatic leaders can also be toxic, or, as in this case, mad as a bag of frogs.

General Hawk: Mostly he points at things.

Finally, it’s worth noting that leadership among Cobra’s opponents, GI Joe, is basically nonexistent. There are four official leaders: Hawk, in overall charge, Duke and Flint, who seem to run most of the on-ground activities, and Sergeant Slaughter, who one would expect would be Senior NCO but actually seems to be a bit of an anarchist. The former three characters don’t actually seem to do any leading, bar basic troop deployment. Sergeant Slaughter provides some leadership in that, as noted, the Joes find him charismatic, and he does force them onto a training programme at the start of the story which, we are told, puts everyone back on their game (somewhat belied by the fact that Cobra then score four easy victories in succession, but never mind).

However, for most of the story the Joes, Slaughter included, seem to operate very much on an individual or small-team basis, with no real need for leadership, making ad-hoc decisions and with leadership roles being similarly rough-and-ready. Nobody seems to have much respect for rank either. The same, incidentally, seems to hold true for their Russian counterparts, the October Guard, who make a cameo in Episode Three; I’m reasonably sure the tall dark and handsome one’s officially in charge, but since he barely does any actual leading, it’s hard to tell.

The secret of GI Joe is out: they may look like they’re a propaganda vector for the US military, but in fact they’re a small-scale anarchist-terrorist collective.

A Summary and Culmination of Leadership Lessons: Bran the Broken

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!

Gender and leadership: the Greyjoy Siblings

iu-3We’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.

Alternative pathways to promotion: Ramsay Bolton

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.

 

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.