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.
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!
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.