Credit: HBO

11 leadership lessons from Game of Thrones

Business leaders could learn a thing or two from Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister, says consultant Debbie Seunarayan.

by Debbie Seunarayan
Last Updated: 20 May 2016

This is a special time for Game of Thrones fans across the globe – series six is underway. To whet your appetite and to prepare ourselves for the next instalment of happenings across the Seven Kingdoms, I spent some time reviewing the story so far to uncover some leadership mantras that we would all do well to abide by. (Spoiler alert...)

1. Do your own dirty work

In the first ever episode, Eddard Stark shows strength of character when he insists that he is the one who should carry out the execution of a deserting member of the Night’s Watch. As tempting as it may be to do otherwise, 'the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword'. It's a critical leadership value if you’re to be perceived as credible, honourable and courageous and a sound lesson to remember when managing difficult situations at work such as redundancies , disciplinary processes or driving unpopular changes. And it goes both ways - if asked to do the dirty work on behalf of a colleague, remember Ned’s words about the ‘hand of the King’ – 'their days are too long and their lives are too short'…

2. Be yourself

'Never forget who you are; wear it like an honour, and then it can never be used against you' - great advice given to Jon Snow by Tyrion Lannister. Authentic, believable leaders don’t try to be someone else. They accept themselves, faults and all. It's not an excuse to be unwilling to adapt and learn, but instead a call to be human, authentic and appropriately vulnerable.

3. Don’t ‘showboat’

More great advice from Ned Stark as he declines an offer to dual with Jaime Lannister – 'I don’t fight in tournaments because when I fight a man for real I don’t want him to know what I can do'. Beware being goaded into workplace battles  - petty conflicts and feuds can be distracting and potentially damaging. Instead, focus on doing the right things well.

4. Feed the mind

'A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone,' says Tyrion Lannister in response to Jon Snow’s question about why he reads so much. Take time to be informed about things far and wide (perhaps by reading MT... - ed.) that may have an impact on your organisation. Tyrion Lannister has a knack of getting out of trouble with his speed of thought and way with words.

5. Neglect networks at your peril

Lord Varis has faced challenges in life but always seems able to become a valuable part of the current leadership team around the Iron Throne. His secret – his network. Granted, his approach may not be for the faint-hearted and his intent may be questionable, but his unfailing efforts in ‘oiling the wheels’ make for insightful viewing. His mantra, as shared with Lady Stark, – 'knowledge is my trade dear lady'…

6. Create value

A valuable lesson in surviving a meritocracy for Jon Snow from his uncle at the Wall. 'Here, a man gets what he earns when he earns it… you’re better than no-one.' Focus on creating value and sustainable relationships rather than climbing up the slippery pole and the climb will take care of itself. Treat others well and they'll be far more likely to be with you when the going gets tough.

7. Value reserves

Perhaps a little pessimistic, but always remember 'winter is coming'. Valuable reserves of budget,  talent and, perhaps most importantly, loyalty can be built up  when things are good – don’t be tempted to make too much ‘hay while the sun shines’ at the expenses of the people, tools and resources you may need when the clouds gather.

8. Alignment

Cersei Lannister appears confused when King Robert asks her 'which is the bigger number – five or one?'

Irritated by his question, she responds. 'Five.' The King then uses his fist to show the power of five armies operating as one. Leadership alignment and commitment to both a cause and a course of action are critical to success in any endeavour and can be the key to achieving surprising results against formidable opponents.

9. Big dose of reality

Start where you are when heading for an audacious goal. In the words of Littlefinger, 'only by admitting what we are can we get what we want.' A reality check really is the first step towards accomplishing your goal.

10. Don’t believe the hype

Believe in your cause and your ability to succeed but don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Stannis's idolisation of Melisandre (his priestess amongst other things) led him to make decisions that were immoral, inhuman and ultimately led to his downfall. Be objective about potential fads and fashions, ideas and people. Always retain your agency and be the individual who can ‘step back’ and critically evaluate the situation. Hold on to your independence of thought. 

11. Succession for stability

If there is one ultimate lesson to be learned from Game of Thrones it is that succession planning cannot be underestimated. Timely, planned succession, communicated transparently, with a range of options and structured development (imagine how Joffrey may have ruled given some transition support) and supported by objective evaluation of high potential candidates (Joffrey wouldn’t have made the mark here) may just have saved a lot of heartache for the Seven Kingdoms.

Debbie Seunarayan is director of Gallus Consulting.


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