Leadership lessons from “Game of Thrones”

I have been watching the HBO series “Game of Thrones” on DVD lately and there are some interesting leadership lessons to be explored.

The series is set in a world similar to medieval times, where the seasons are unpredictable and can last for years. The summer has been many years, but now people are predicting that a long winter is on the way and it is creating uncertainty and insecurity in the realm.

The king, Robert Baratheon, is a warrior well past his prime who appoints an old friend, Eddard Stark, from the North to be his “Hand of the King”. The Hand essentially runs the seven kingdoms while the king will (as he rather indelicately put it) “Eat, drink and whore my way into an early grave”.

A leader who abdicates his or her leadership to someone else is setting up problems. In appointing a 2IC, you weaken your leadership and encourage competition and factions in the team. It has the potential to confuse the team and mess with the team culture, especially if you and your 2IC have different leadership styles. In very senior teams it undermines the delivery of strategy and outcomes as people lower down the tree try to second guess which leader is really in the driver’s seat and whose decisions they should follow.

As Hand of the King, Eddard Stark discovers a realm in bankruptcy, governed by a council that is overruled by the king when it suits his purposes. The senior people are confused, unsure of who is really in control and unable to make decisions.

Some leaders don’t appoint a 2IC, but still don’t lead in their own right. Some are overly collaborative or affiliative, or deliberately create a self managed team. This can be successful, but it is rare. In a leadership vacuum, someone will rise to the top – it is human nature to want someone to call the shots. Until the surrogate leader is established, the team will be in conflict as the players sort out the pecking order. Sometimes, no one wants to be a leader and an anti-power struggle occurs as everyone ducks and weaves around the issues.

We see this leadership battle play out in “Game of Thrones” once Robert Baratheon dies. Disregarding his final wish, that Eddard Stark be regent until the heir, Joffrey, comes of age, the Queen’s powerful family have young Joffrey crowned and Eddard beheaded. The Queen’s family is very unpopular and with a minor on the throne there is a leadership vacuum – immediately all the players begin to jostle for power.

Eddard’s son, Robb, calls up a Northern army and marches on the capital to avenge his father’s death and to recover his two sisters who are still in the capital. It isn’t long before the Northern lords declare Robb “King in the North”, breaking away from the 7 kingdoms. Why?

When times are tough and people are feeling insecure, the more they look to a leader. In setting up self managed work teams, or considering your own leadership style, take into account what is going on in the business. Are people secure, or is there some sort of threat? The more uncertain things are, the more people need confident, centred leaders. Without one, someone will step up and provide leadership.

Robb Stark provides a vision and clear plan for change that gives people meaning and purpose in a time of great uncertainty and threat. And the people elected him their leader.

Which leader would you rather be – a Robert Baratheon, or a Robb Stark?


Contact Ros for leadership development, coaching and facilitation or visit Shaping Change at

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