Leadership in Game of Thrones

The Honourable Ned Stark. Source: Masala.com

I am no movie expert. I remembered being tortured by wife into watching Deadpool at the cinema. I slept off, finding it difficult to enjoy. However, how did I find time to complete seven seasons of Game of Thrones, rightly waiting for the final season? Well, I watched GOT with a pen and notepad and I am happy to share my life lessons from the characters.

  1. Ned Stark: Pragmatism in a Complex World

A few people would have rightly counted him as foolish. But that is how society sees folks who are trying to be consistent in honour and duty. Ned Stark carried a title in the whole movie — the Honourable Ned Stark. However, even when he had the best of intentions, he could not learn an element of pragmatism that could have saved his head. Jon Snow made an important statement in the whole series that when the world keeps pushing ahead with compromise, words suddenly lose their meaning. However, leaders must learn how to read the room, step back and see a bigger picture to fight someday. It was like Jon Snow choosing not to save the lives of Lannister Army in the last season which might have killed him while squaring with the Greyworm.

2. Robb Stark: Losing the Meaning of Words & Complex Decisions

Maybe he was the ultimate foolish man in my stack but one would also contend that he faced serious leadership decisions that defined the times of a leader. Reneging his words after accepting to marry the daughters of Walder Frey was unforgivable. If Ned Stark carried himself with honour, Robb fell short of the Stark code, accepting the daughters of Walder Frey could be passed over because they were less beautiful. The distractions in his newfound love put him to death in a very cruel way. The issue where his mother, Catelyn, set Jaime Lannister free was also a great angle. That was treason, judged by death. But how do you put your mother to death? This was how Robb silently chipped away his authority, till his armies dispersed into the North, rolling back gains.

It tells me that sometimes, leaders fall upon their sword by not being able to resolve protracted dilemmas. This is what Winston Churchill meant in his eulogy to Neville Chamberlain that “What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions.” Robb took some decisions in haste, the kind of sub-optimal answers our brains offer when we are in an emotional state. A small lesson in Barack Obama’s life is that when he was faced with multiple dilemmas, at critical decision-making junctures in leadership, he withdrew into a quiet place to think. Delaying for a few moments in leadership helps us make better decisions. This does not mean infinite delay but stepping back from the emotional rush that mostly clouds our judgement.

3. Stannis Baratheon: The Cult of Counsel

I might be a weirdo for saying this but Stannis Baratheon was one of my favourite persons in GoT. I like his kingly stature, cuts a figure of a well-bred person for the throne. How did he end? In life, you must set limits around your counsellors and the kind of counsel you receive from them. You might be told to be the promised one but still, ruin everything without constant introspection. As against all evidence, Stannis did not have enough army to take King’s Landing. When he was told to wait at the Wall to allow winter to cease, he chose to attack the blistering cold, losing a chunk of his army.

He chose to burn for his daughter alive. To what end? Why did he not listen to himself and rethink the Red Woman’s prophecies? The only restraint in his life was Ser Davos and he sent him on a wild chase. Leadership can be very lonely. That’s why one needs a multiple of wise counsel with conflicting angles to power through. Rinsing one’s decision through varied wise counsel helps leadership and suppresses sycophancy, a situation when people allow their leaders to live in their world of fantasy. It was a shame on how he ended but that’s how a life rode on sycophancy does.

4. Jon Snow and Robert Baratheon: Two Extremes of Leadership

You might be surprised to see both names together but in this lens, we see two guys who are unwilling to take the throne but circumstance dropped it at their feet. Robert Baratheon fought his way into Kings Landing ending the reign of the Mad King. So what did he do with power? He only drank himself to stupor and fathered bastards around town. You might fight so hard to win the throne and still lose the capacity to govern. Being a fighter or critic does not equal sound leadership. I believe such would have befallen Jon Snow if he sat on the Iron Throne. His pious spirit was great but we can all see how this led to his death when he could not read the power dynamics at the Wall. While he could have done more to coordinate his vision around Wildings to his brethren at the Wall who had genuine issues of mistrust and injustice, he only prodded them on to follow him on the journey. Leadership is almost being in sync with followers, while you might articulate a large vision beyond the prism of the collective reasoning, it is important to communicate and never stop listening.

Daenerys and Sansa Stark: Leaders in their Own Right

I still don’t accept the character evolution of Mother of Dragon, Daenerys Targaryen to a despot who burnt an entire city for being spurned of love by her own nephew. She did not even love Jon Snow as much as she loved and cried over Khal Drogo. However, in Dany and Sansa did I find right leadership? Dany was pious in her intention of freeing slaves, asking masters to surrender and how she also quietly gathered her forces to take the Iron Throne. She threw Tyrion Lannister’s counsel around her to caution her primal instincts and when she needed to prove her weight to Cersei, she used her dragon to burn down the army, after they robbed Highgarden. That’s what leaders offer in the end — ability to use swords and olive branches in nearly equal moderation. It constantly reminds of the US coat of arms. I like the development of Sansa and one could see, that in end, she put her family first, an antithesis to how she began. Everything was more about the North to her. From the suspicion of Dany, rebuke of Jon Snow and to the final negotiations, it was more of how to isolate themselves from the troubles of Westeros.

Tywin Lannister was asked Tommen on what makes a great king. He stated that it is not gold, armies or fortress but the quality of counsel that a leader receives. This is why Lincoln, FDR, Obama and other great leaders, huddled together a “team of rivals” who see things in lenses different from theirs. A leader does not need to be the smartest person in the room but must be smart enough to know the questions to ask. That’s why I like Dany who took in Tyrion, Varys & Missandei in one swoop. This is why great counsel is important for leadership.

Finally, I like the entire series. I believe the end was alright but needed more episodes to fully develop the characters, especially an evil Dany. Arya Stark was great and one might have taken the years of wandering around as nothing but it prepared her in the end. And sometimes, you don’t have to be a great “leader”, just a dedicated servant like Brienne of Tarth; it takes people of common birth to sit among nobles. The world can also give redemption to leaders as it did for Theon Greyjoy & Jaime Lannister who chose to fight in a dire moment, with the ones they wronged in the past.

I also believe this is one of television’s greatest moments. I enjoyed it.

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow