Behavioural theories of leadership: Robert Baratheon

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.