Some business leaders may think that it is a waste of time to engage with pop culture. However, the truth is that relaxing with the latest blockbuster movie or a celebrated television series can provide great insight into leadership. Among the current shows that perhaps has the most to teach leaders is Game of Thrones, a show which is all about vying for and maintaining a position of political leadership. In the show, characters take a wide range of different approaches to obtaining power and developing their leadership capabilities, providing business leaders with examples of those strategies to avoid and to use. Following are some of the key lessons that can be learned from Game of Thrones.
1. Prejudice leads to failure.
Tywin is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the show. While he never personally assumes the title of king, he positions himself to be the man behind the strings who is actually in control. However, his prejudice becomes his downfall. In the show, he writes off his youngest son because he was born with a chromosomal defect, and his wife died during childbirth. His son takes the blame for reasons completely beyond his control. Tywin’s prejudice blinds him to the true brilliance of this son, who proves himself to be both an excellent strategist and a skilled warrior. In the end, Tywin ends up taking credit for much of what his youngest son accomplished and ignoring the rest. Even worse, he takes advantage of an unfair scheme to put his son to death, a decision that ultimately leads to his own downfall. Without prejudice, Tywin could have seen his son’s potential and guaranteed his legacy.
2. Advisers are integral to greatness.
In Game of Thrones, advisers play some of the most critical roles. Daenerys rises to greatness largely due to the help of her adviser, Jorah, and continues to bring new advisers on board as her power expands. Tyrion becomes one of her most valued advisers after he serves as hand to the king and is disrespected. A common theme of the show is that advisers are actually smarter than the rulers whom they support. In the beginning of the show, Ned Stark proved himself a much more capable leader than King Robert Baratheon. Similarly, Davos is wiser than Baratheon’s brother, Stannis, and Master Aemon is smarter than Jon Snow. What makes these leaders great is that they understand when to defer to wisdom and listen to their advisers. When they do not, as in the case of Robert Baratheon, they ultimately fall from their place of power.
3. Leadership necessarily involves sacrifice.
Another prominent theme of Game of Thrones is sacrifice. Leaders continually make difficult decisions in their struggle to assume and maintain power. Sacrifice is a theme from the very first episode, when Ned Stark travels away from his family to become the hand of the king. Jon Snow must sacrifice the woman he loves to become the leader of the Night’s Watch and continue fighting for what he believes is right. Business leaders who do not believe that they will have to make sacrifices put themselves at serious risk. People make the best decisions when they prepare themselves by thinking about what they value most and how far they are willing to go to get what they want. Rob Stark put love before leadership when he forsook his word to marry a daughter of Walder Frey, and this deception cost him his life and nearly ended the Stark line. But, to him, true love was the most important thing, and he acknowledged the potential risks of his decision.
4. Integrity wins out over manipulation.
One of the most important qualities for a business leader to have is transparency. When individuals try to manipulate situations to work in their favor, they ultimately lose the respect of those around them. The problem is that this strategy can work for a while and lull leaders into a false sense of security. Littlefinger, for example, spends nearly the entire show deceiving people and gaming the system to get ahead. In the end, however, he is called out for his deception. While Littlefinger cannot see his rise to power coming to an end, the audience clearly sees the bridges he burns through his deception. Characters in the show who act with integrity, ranging from Jon Snow to Daenerys, earn the respect of the people around them, who ultimately show up to fight for and protect them.
5. Great leaders understand their weaknesses.
One of the most stubborn characters in the show is Cersei, a woman who does not understand her own shortcomings. At one point, she argues with her father and claims that he does not trust and respect her because she is a woman. Astutely, he replies that it is not because she is a woman, but because she is not as smart as she thinks she is. Cersei fails to surround herself with people whom she trusts and who can help her reach her goals, which is a large part of the reason why she fails as a leader. This stands in great contrast to Daenerys, who knows well the extent of her own knowledge and abilities. In order to counteract her shortcomings, she develops a group of trusted advisers that include an ex-slave, a former traitor, and the son of one of her sworn enemies. Daenerys pays attention to each person’s strengths and, more importantly, knows how they can complement her weaknesses.