What are the best leadership lessons to learn from Game of Thrones?

Leaders are people. This may seem obvious, but sometimes without realising it, we often put ourselves on a pedestal or think that we are a completely different being that sits on a completely different level to other people (“I am perfect!!! Those mere mortals!!! How dare they!!!”).

Just like people, leaders are not immune to flaws and mistakes. But what makes a good leader is when a leader is able to reflect and admit mistakes, and openly take feedback from those around them, including those above us and the mere mortals that take orders from us. Because from a place as high as where leaders usually sit, many things inadvertently are going to be viewed with a very different perspective. This results in the obvious: leaders basking so much in their perceived glory that they are completely oblivious to the things that truly matter. Or essentially, things that matter to the people start to bear a completely different meaning and implication to leaders, thus making them practically unable to understand problems the way people do. There is everything wrong with being a leader in a bubble. They do not realize that their intentions create a myriad of problems.

And the old saying goes this way: 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

That proverb may seem familiar to those that followed the fictional story in the Game of Thrones. In Game, the audience observes leaders from various backgrounds, with very different ideals: the good guys and the bad guys.

Let’s talk about Daenerys Targaryen.

She was a just and fair ruler with good intentions. Not only did she liberate slaves and take care of the people, but she was open to feedback and advocated change. Ironically,  she believed so much in her ideals that in the end, she turned into a dictator, purging anyone whom she believes to be in the wrong.

As a leader, the temptation to be blinded by one’s convictions is great. These leaders are determined to build their legacies and in doing so, they try to change the perspectives of the people they lead, creating a new reality in the minds of those who follow them. At times, they may claim credits for their achievements, while the ownership of mistakes may be shifted to their team. Moderately, this is a good thing. Believing strongly in oneself is an important step towards confident leadership. All emotional attachments are disregarded as we open our ears to feedback and improve. As a bonus, this lands us in a reality distortion field where it makes us think all challenges are surmountable (thus creating resilience in the face of challenges). While it may not sway the minds of some people, these leaders will have faithful followers who worship them for their strength to be different and tenacious. 

Here’s a word of caution:  when a leader takes their own beliefs and ideals all the way – hook, line, and sinker… we risk becoming the next Daenerys Targaryen.

Now, we talk about Jon Snow.

Snow led the Night’s Watch with trust and inspiration, making people willingly and proudly follow him. He worked as a leader and commander with large brush strokes. He didn’t micromanage his people, and even trusted them to have the freedom to grow and flourish.

But he is far from a perfect leader. Heck, he actually didn’t want to be a leader. In the end, he failed to take care of the concerns of the Night’s Watch and he was murdered in a mutiny.  This implies that leaders should not be overtly goal-centric. Any form of introspection from time to time is necessary. Taking time to identify with your own leadership and listening to the people will help facilitate and address the needs and concerns of those under your leadership. The key: Do not take shortcuts. Lead as far as the role accorded to you prevails. Well, unless you are ready to relinquish leadership, lead with responsibility.

What can I say about Joffrey Baratheon?

He is the best example of what a leader should NOT be. Sure, he didn’t murder a ludicrous number of people like Daenerys Targaryen, but he is simply an awful leader. He has no redeeming factor at all.  

Cruel? Check. Selfish? Have no honor? Meting out tortures for fun? Check, check, and check. 

His arrogant and narcissistic demeanor may seem over the top, but keep in mind that: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. We don’t even need to look far into history to learn this, as even leaders in this modern era often display similar traits: Elon Musk (Tesla/SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), well-known as the best leaders in their fields of business (and the wealthiest human beings on the planet), are also guilty of exploiting workers, tax avoidance, and if I could boldly say, exhibiting childish behaviours.

Here is a lesson that we can learn from.

Sometimes as a leader, we are all too afraid to be humble and own our mistakes, thinking it will demystify us, that it will make people respect us less. We forget that being fallible actually humanizes us; it potentially opens our eyes to issues and ideas that are just lurking outside our myopic vision. 

Ideally, as a leader, we need to strike a balance between staying humble and grounded, while being authentic to our fundamental objectives. 

But a leader is just a human like you and me, and we can’t handle everything. This may seem like a conundrum, but it is not the job of a leader to handle and manage everything, no. That’s why the art of delegation has been demonstrated by leaders before us. We can lead and hire people to serve as an extension of our capacities. It allows us to focus our energy and creativity to do what we do best – Lead.

A leader’s job is to lead, not to micromanage

Game of Thrones images © HBO

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