Six Leadership Lessons From Game of Thrones Season Six
By Steven J Selikoff
Game of Thrones is a world of alliances and competition, politics, powerbrokers, fair and failed leaders, trust, deception, limited resources, plus a few dragons. It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a world filled with leadership lessons delightfully delivered by our most loved, and hated, characters. In honor of Season Six, here are six lessons all business leaders can learn from Game of Thrones.
Lesson 1. Be self-aware.
Know who you are, warts and all. As a leader, this is a critical characteristic for your success. Tyrion Lannister advises Jon Snow, “Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness.” This bit of wisdom served Jon well as he grew into the leader we love today. The advice serves just as well for you, whether you are a leader of a team, or the leader of a business.
Good leaders have an accurate understanding of their own selves, their motivations, values, weaknesses, strengths, vulnerabilities, and needs. Great leaders use this understanding to make changes in themselves. Jon didn’t set out to be a leader. He changed and grew. Tyrion helped by encouraging him to look inside, and to accept and believe in himself. Chip on his shoulder and all.
Once Jon accepted himself and embraced his own principles, he let his actions be driven by his character and beliefs. Those actions drew followers to him. First when he trained Pypar and Grenn to fight, later when he protected Samwell Tarly, and later still by his choices to befriend the Wildlings and protect the North from the White Walkers.
Tyrion couldn’t have known the future when he gave his advice to Jon Snow, but he did see Jon’s core character. He helped Jon not only see it, but to own it, and to make it a strength. Oh, and that chip on his shoulder? It’s still there. But by the end of Season Six it has become a motivator, not a burden. Well done Jon.
In Season Six, we see the same self-awareness displayed by another beloved character who took ownership of herself and of her growth. Daenerys knows her strengths. She spoke the truth when she stood before the weak and misogynistic Dothraki council and proclaimed, “None of you are fit to lead the Dothraki. But I am. So I will.”
At the beginning of Season One, Daenerys was a timid pawn. But as Season Six ended, she stood at the head of her own armada. At her side stood Tyrion, the newly appointed Hand of The Queen – the same self-aware dwarf who once counseled Jon Snow and put him on the path to become the King of The North. Tyrion Lannister, a very wise leader who knows himself, and is finally getting his due. To coin a recent internet meme: Be Like Tyrion.
Lesson 2. Know your competitors.
Know your competitor’s strength, and their weaknesses. Ramsey Bolton is (was) a vile, and twisted sadist. In Season Six we also learn he is a skilled manipulator, brilliant at reading people, and unparalleled at exploiting their vulnerabilities. He knew just when his father’s guard was down. He showed how his deceptively casual, yet carefully chosen words could slice into Sansa like poisonous verbal blades. And he knew Jon’s strengths and weaknesses so well, that he easily drew him into a tactical mistake that negated the strength of his battle plan — despite all of Jon’s advisors, and Sansa, warning Jon not to respond recklessly.
Do your competitors have a particular strength you need to address? Do they have a weakness you can exploit? Do they have poor customer service? Slow delivery time? Are they clinging to an outdated business model? Ramsey would know, and Ramsey would leverage it in his competitive strategy. You should too.
Lesson 3. Don’t micro-manage.
Tywin Lannister was the ultimate micro-manager. He believed no one else could do his job as well as he could. He didn’t trust anyone and he was unwilling to share his power. He felt he could buy, and intimidate people to be loyal to him. We saw how that turned out. Tyrion made a sharp point of it.
In Season Six we are given the lesson about micro-management and leadership again. Jon and Daenerys both surround themselves with capable independent people. They trust them and empower them, and they in turn trust their leaders.
However, Ramsey Bolton is a study in the opposite. He micromanages those around him. He mistakes fear for respect and bullies them into loyalty. That style of management is a recipe for failure as we saw in Season Six’s penultimate episode. At the end he had only his dogs left to comfort him. Ramsey arrogantly believed that they would follow his commands. He was wrong, and his demise came when his “loyal beasts” turned against him.
Lesson 4. Recognize the value of the ‘Small People.’
Never overlook the line worker, the hourly worker, the independent contributor, and the lowest man on the totem pole. The serfs and farmers whom Game of Thrones calls ‘Small People.’ They are an important part of your business, and can be a big part of its success. Share the vision of your business with them. Make sure that even the lowest person in your organization knows that their contribution is important, even if they don’t see the connection at first. Legend has it that when JFK toured a NASA facility in 1961 he introduced himself to a janitor sweeping the floor. “What do you do here?” asked JFK. The janitor beamed, stood tall, and answered, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Can people in your organization answer that question as proudly as the janitor did for JFK?
Game of Thrones gives us a memorable lesson with a similar character. Hodor was lovable, slow, and kind hearted. Few people imagined he was as critical to the story as he was. He had a simple mission; Hold the door. He knew his mission since he was a boy. He repeated it over and over. It became the only thing he was able to say. When Bran was on the verge of capture and death, Hodor saved him, and possibly the future of the Seven Kingdoms, by simply doing his job. He held the door. Hodor wasn’t a brilliant strategist. He wasn’t a warrior. He had no magic. But he completed his job, and his commitment and sacrifice, saved Bran. In doing so, Hodor became one of the most treasured characters of the entire series.
Lesson 5. Don’t emotionally react to problems, thoughtfully respond.
What makes a leader a great leader is not what goes wrong, but how they deal with it. Petyr Baelish said “Chaos isn’t a pit, chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them.” Don’t let the fall break you. The best way to do this is to thoughtfully respond to problems, not rush to react from pure emotional fire.
In Season Six, Daenerys returns from the Khalasar and finds the city of Mereen under attack from the slavers, and the Sons of The Harpy rising up again from within her walls. It doesn’t seem like much has changed from when she left. And from Tyrion’s manner, it’s obvious he realizes this. He is visibly trembling as he faces Daenerys, expecting her to blow up.
He explains the situation to her in rushed words, and then instead of reacting emotionally and violently, she pauses, looks at him, and she calmly says, “Good. Shall we begin?” Then they spoke about next steps.
It quickly became clear that she had no strategy other than to hit back as powerfully as she could. But being a good leader, she allowed Tyrion to suggest an alternative plan. A plan as it turned out, that saved the city, ensured its future, and gave her the fleet of ships she needed. She won, and she won big.
In business, and in life, when you are faced with a problem, a challenge, or chaos, the first thing you should do is breathe. Take a deep breath. Then think. Calmly. Don’t react hurriedly out of fear and emotion. Instead just breathe, and respond thoughtfully and with consideration. As Petyr Baelish would advise, find the ladder out of your chaos and climb it.
Lesson 6. Be disruptive.
The right leader, with the right vision, the courage, the means, and the right team around him or her, can change the world! Jon Snow sees that. In one swift move he changed the Wildlings from enemy to ally. That was a disruptive move. Like many great leaders he didn’t fall for the trap of ‘but we’ve always done it that way.’ He broke the rules, did the unexpected, and as we see in Season Six, gained a strategic partner that fiercely fights alongside of him.
Daenerys Targaryen understands that too. In Season Five she says one of my favorite lines. “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” I loved it. She is a dynamic game changer with an appetite for making big decisions.
In Season Six, Daenerys starts breaking the wheel by becoming the first female leader of a historically patriarchal group. But that was only her first step. What’s next? She told us all, when she spoke with Vara Greyjoy. “We are going to leave the world a better place,” she said.
Jon wants to make the world safer. Daenerys wants to make the world better. I hope the two of them connect in Season Seven. What an exciting and satisfying future that would be.
Steven Selikoff has been a Business Manager to two Microsoft Vice-presidents, a successful entrepreneur, a Change Management and Process Improvement consultant to numerous Fortune 100 companies, and a starving artist in Italy and Brazil.