Three Lessons in Leadership From HBO’s Game of Thrones

It’s the age-old question, does life imitate art or does art imitate life?  While the question itself is debatable, the fact that real life and art mirror each other is not. All art is a reflection of life and vice versa, from the Paleolithic paintings of bison in the Altamira Caves of Spain to the graffiti-inspired building murals in west Philadelphia.

The art of filmmaking is no different.  The civil rights era classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinnerwas a thought-provoking representation of the racial tensions and anxieties that were pervasive in 1967.  Just like the The Hurt Lockeris a biting depiction of the often-overlooked struggles our current day veterans face when reassimilating into society.

Today there is a media firestorm around Game of Thrones Season 8 premier. And while the fictional setting appears medieval to our eyes, there are timeless leadership lessons to be gleaned from the tangled web that surrounds all seats of power – especially in light of our current clannish social and political climate.  Here are three lessons from HBO’s Game of Thrones that all leaders can and should embrace.

1. Never do privately what you would not do publicly

While one could argue that war within the seven kingdoms would eventually come with the rise Daenerys Targaryen, she would have been met by a much more consolidated army had it not been for one seemingly inconsequential act.  Jamie Lannister thought he was solving a problem when he pushed Brandon Stark from the tower window after being caught in the midst of an incestuous act with his sister Cercei. Little did he know that in doing so, he would set in motion a series of calamities that would ultimately divide the kingdom and start The War of the Five Kings.  In modern day society where our lives are usually on full display in social media, this lesson cannot be overstated. It is exacerbated by those in the callout culture who dismiss intent and twist reality in order to vilify anyone they deem to be an oppressor – this includes leaders of any type.  Therefore, we should all govern ourselves as if the smallest seemingly inconsequential thing is of grave importance – because as leaders, it is.

2. True leaders earn their place

Stannis and Renly Baratheon both argued that monarchy tradition should convey the crown to each of them after the death of their brother King Robert. That might have been true if they were all sons of a King. However, Robert took the throne during revolution against the Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen. Therefore the crown went to Joffrey Baratheon – the actual son of Jamie and Cercei who’s illegitimacy gave credence to Stannis and Renly’s claims in their eyes, but I digress.  Only fractions of Westeros backed each of their claims. Stannis in particular was the architect of his own doom. His efforts to prove his claim as a birthright only made him look weaker.  And eventually even those who followed him began to doubt him. As Tywin Lannister once told his grandson “Any man who has to say ‘I am a King’ is no King.” The point is that having a title doesn’t make you a leader. Just because you have been a Vice-President doesn’t automatically mean you should one day be a President. Your place as a leader is earned, not given.

3. Don’t allow the past to dictate the future

After being named King of the North, Jon Snow was faced with many difficult decisions.  But the decision to allow the Karstark’s and the Umber’s to maintain their lands, homes and titles despite having fought against him drew criticism, especially from his sister Sanza. Truly, a solid argument for displacing those families could easily be made.  But Jon saw what was coming at Hardhome and knew that in order to fight the Night King he would need a consolidated kingdom. Just as a fragmented Westeros allowed the Mother of Dragons to cross the Narrow Sea and bring her Dothraki hoard ashore (along with 8000 Unsullied Warriors), so would a fragmented north be crushed beneath the feet of the White Walkers.  This act of leadership is my favorite in the series. Not only did Jon consolidate the north with this action, but his mercy undoubtedly earned the eternal loyalty of both families, who would have otherwise been left to fend for themselves.  He could see the broader implications and displayed great humility. Sometimes as leaders we may have evidence to support the reprimand possibly even the termination of a team member. Before taking action, however, think not of how the past created the present, but think instead of how the present may shape the future.

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