Leadership lessons from GoT (no spoilers!)

Betrayal, deceit, false flattery, mind games…just some of the less lethal modes of power politics regularly deployed in the fantasy blockbuster Game of Thrones.

There was a time when such mendacities, perhaps not quite at the pitch of King’s Landing, were not uncommon and slyly tolerated in the corporate world. Alright, perhaps that can still be the case.

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In business today however shareholders, employees, customers and society as a whole are far less permissive of ethical transgressions. Such behaviours are bad for engagement, bad for customer satisfaction, threatening to a social licence to operate and ultimately bad for shareholders.

"Setting aside the colour of GOT, there are actually – really – some fundamental lessons about leadership in the blockbuster series.”  - Leo D'Angelo Fisher

So does that leave GoT as just a fantasy of medieval realpolitik? A melodrama irrelevant to a corporate world where even the most minor subplot would have compliance officers and regulators scorching the earth faster than a swooping dragon?

Actually no. Setting aside the acidity, underlying drama and, well, colour of GOT, there are actually – really – some fundamental lessons about leadership in the blockbuster series.

George R.R. Martin’s work is fantasy and spectacle writ large but like all good fairy tales it’s steeped in narratives both recognisable and relatable.

Game of Thrones serves as a parable in any number of contexts – as countless PhD theses have doubtless postulated. But most compelling of all is what Game of Thrones has to say about the realpolitik of leadership: trust, courage, strategy, vision, loyalty and…well, dragons.

As the world settles back for the new season of Game of Thrones, here are seven perceptive quotations from the series to date and the lessons they crystallise for leaders.

"The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword." — Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark

It is a time-honoured verity leaders must lead by example but it is doubly important in a millennial workplace less in the thrall of titles and station and more concerned with leaders leading and being empowered themselves.

Corporate leadership has a much wider franchise today. Corporate leaders are also community leaders.

Employees no longer leave their values at home; they expect their workplace to reflect community values. Increasingly there is an expectation CEOs will stand up for those values.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce’s public advocacy for same-sex marriage is such leadership. No doubt Qantas has a “people and culture” manual with soaring platitudes about inclusivity and diversity Joyce could have hidden behind.

Instead he has decided to lead from the front. It is a stance not without fringe benefits: free dessert.

"Any man who must say 'I am the king' is no true king." — Tywin Lannister

The graveyard of fallen corporate heroes is littered with the bones of CEOs who uttered the fateful words ‘Don’t you know who I am?’.

These are leaders whose luck ran out, whose success relied more on bluster than brilliance, whose initial hard work gave way to hubris; who stopped listening to the wise counsel which previously placed a brake on their worst impulses.

The era of the Cult of the CEO is a fading one. Corporate history is rich with examples of where Tywin Lannister’s sage advice to boy-king Joffrey has been overlooked; so many mighty lions unmasked as paper tigers.

“I swear to you, sitting in a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.” – Robert Baratheon

Successful leaders know getting the job is just the beginning of the journey. While it is true getting to the top requires its own skills and attributes, it’s what happens next, once in the chair (or throne), which counts. For a leader, success ultimately comes down to performance.

While there is only one royal fundament on the throne there are many drivers of performance.

The apparatus a leader builds around herself or himself is critical: a leadership team of trusted executives, with clearly defined responsibilities and objectives, with shared values and ethos, nurturing of talent and champions of diversity.

A rapidly changing economy and competitive landscape also means a leader must be agile, open to new ideas, tolerant of short-term failures and encouraging of innovation.

• "Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” — Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish

It’s often said when times are good it’s easy to be a successful CEO. In which case all CEOs must be on their toes now.

Since the GFC there have been no easy rides, with the global economy struggling to regain its equilibrium since the financial crisis.

Deep structural changes brought on by rapid developments in technology, shifting consumer behaviours and the impact of digital disruptors have added to the uncertainty which now faces every business and CEO.

Amidst this “chaos”, CEOs of traditional – or ‘legacy’ – businesses have sought to find a way forward by redrawing their organisational structures and business models, embracing digital transformation, creating in-house ‘incubators’ to develop new products and service delivery channels or in some cases forging strategic alliances with the disruptors.

Not all CEOs in this time of flux will live to tell the tale, as the rest of Littlefinger’s quote explains: “Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again; the fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to … illusions. Only the ladder is real, the climb is all there is."

“I'm not going to stop the wheel. I'm going to break the wheel.” – Daenerys Targaryen

Most traditional businesses have never faced such a tumultuous period. Economic ups and downs go with the territory of being in business and leaders have responded accordingly. One might even say with not a great deal of imagination.

But the current volatile environment, shaped by rapid advances in technology and the transition to the digital economy, leaves no room for business as usual.

Companies which respond to the challenge of the disruptors must become adept at disrupting themselves, not just once but continually.

Developments in technology are nowhere near done, which means neither is the impact on business models, markets and customer behaviour. The next generation of successful business leaders will increasingly be those which ‘break the wheel’.

• “It is not what we do, so much as why we do it.” – Tyrion Lannister.

Many pulse checks of societal anxiety, from the Edelman Trust Barometer or Pew Research’s attitude polling, shows people are losing trust in institutions and business.

They increasingly believe business is interested in profit at any cost, executives will exercise power without compunction.

For business to win back trust, there is a demand from communities for a greater sense of ‘purpose’.

Indeed, the literature is showing those companies with a well-articulated purpose outperform those which more simply aim to enrich shareholders or grow earnings.

A visiting board member of the UK’s Financial Reporting Council Paul Druckman noted the importance of recent moves by some companies to act on values rather than simply profits, saying these were examples of corporate ‘stewardship’.

Such decisions were not about short-term benefits to shareholders or the financial merits of funding a project, he said, but “a decision about the long-term health of the (company) and … a decision about social and environmental impacts”.

Shayne Elliott, the chief executive of ANZ, the publisher of bluenotes, has been increasingly vocal along the same lines and he has championed a clear ‘purpose’ for the bank of “shaping a world where people and communities thrive”.

• “A wise king knows what he knows and what he doesn’t.” – Tywin Lannister

The all-knowing, all-conquering CEO of yore has no place in the modern organisation.

Look at any struggling company today and almost certainly you will find a CEO at the helm who refuses to admit he is out of his depth. And worse, a board which seems none the wiser their CEO is all at sea.

Business has never been more volatile: the post-GFC economic order is still taking shape, the role of rapidly advancing technology has never been more profound and yet its greatest impacts are still to come, and the post-modern organisational structure remains a work in progress.

It is a brave (read foolish) CEO who believes he can contain such a raging storm in the cup of his hand.

A leader who surrounds themselves with the finest minds is no less a leader; indeed, their leadership is enhanced.

So there it is. Seven leadership lessons from Game of Thrones. GOT may not replace the MBA as the primary source of leadership lessons and business smarts as a case study it is not without merit.

As the seventh series unfolds, it may not be a bad idea to take notes. You will be tested.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a freelance writer and veteran of management journalism

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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