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.

Traditional pathways to promotion: Robb Stark and the Baratheon brothers

iuOne 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.