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.

Power-based leadership theories: Sansa Stark

To recap: we have now considered behavioural theories of leadership, which identify 7524406913406f48bea6a335ca653fa0certain 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.