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What Do Game of Thrones, Jon Snow, and Khalessi Have to Do With Business Leadership? More Than You Think

Game of Thrones, season 5. Who’s excited?

This girl. Cue the Game of Thrones theme song.

I have to admit, I am a total Game of Thrones (GoT) fangirl. I’m waiting for HBO’s April 12th launch of season 5 with bated breath and I’m expecting it to live up to my expectations. I love the character development, storylines, fantasy elements, and the business leadership lessons that it teaches.

Wait, what?

Yes, there are a large number of lessons that we can learn from the leaders fighting for the Iron Throne and these lessons can be applied back to leadership in today’s organizations. Below are my top 5 lessons from the leaders of GoT. Readers beware; it's about to get real. I'm going to become a major GoT nerd.

1. Hard and soft skills go hand in hand

If you watch Game of Thrones, you know that soft skills are a must. But as the race for the Iron Throne has taught us avid readers/watchers, soft skills are not enough. One must also be a good strategic planner. For example, Joffrey, one-time heir to the Iron Throne agreed to let Ned Stark live if he confessed his transgressions and swore allegiance to him. However, Joffrey went back on his promise, leading the Hand of the King to lose his head, which instigated a huge war between the North and South. If Joffrey understood the strategic implications of beheading Ned Stark and could effectively regulate his emotions, he may have not been poisoned.

APQC’s research on leadership skills deficits also stresses the importance of both hard and soft skills in business. The research shows that employees today are lacking hard and soft skills, yet they are both necessary for business success. Topping the list of the largest skills gaps are:

  • strategic planning,
  • change management
  • knowledge sharing
  • listening
  • emotional intelligence

In order for leaders to “stay alive” in the business environment today, they must balance their hard skills with new, collaborative, softer skills like the successful leaders in GoT.

2. Leaders must adapt to the changing environment

In the Realm, anything can happen. White walkers might pop out of nowhere, dragons may hatch, wildlings may invade the Wall, or you may be captured by enemies. To be an effective (and living) leader in Westeros, one must adapt to the changing environment.

This is true in the business world as well. APQC research shows that two major causes of leadership deficits are current business challenges requiring a different leadership style and leaders being resistant to change. Game of Thrones teaches us leaders that do not adapt to new challenges end up with their heads on pikes in King’s Landing.

In today’s knowledge-centric, technology, data-driven and global economy, being an agile and adaptive leader is necessary for survival. Business leaders that do not want their “heads on a chopping block” must be able to adapt to new trends and technology and switch their business strategies as necessary or their products and services may become obsolete.

3. All employees can be leaders

The fight for the Iron Throne isn’t only between the North and the South. The entire Seven Kingdoms are vying to rule Westeros and GoT shows us that everyone can be a leader in one capacity or another. In GoT, we saw unlikely leaders rising to power. Little Finger, Daenarys Targaryen, Arya and Sansa Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Samwell Tarly, and Jon Snow all took leadership positions in some fashion.

In today’s business world, not all employees are trained to be leaders but it is necessary because they may be required to lead as the situation or their expertise dictates. In a volatile business environment where new trends and actions can require changes to an organization’s strategy quickly, all employees must be ready to lead a team or project. Providing leadership development to all employees not only provides a large base of employees from which organizations can choose when selecting candidates for formal leadership development opportunities. More importantly, this large base of potential leaders positions an organization to transition to a more fluid, situation-based style of leadership which is what organizations need today and will continue to require in the near future.

4. All leaders need succession plans

Who else was thinking, “where are Robert Baratheon’s or Khal Drogo’s succession plans?” when they died? When both leaders passed away, they left chaos behind. Neither had developed or prepared a pipeline of suitable leaders to take their places, even though they held key positions. Rather than allowing all of Westeros to battle it out for their positions, these leaders could have put succession planning in place. Then, certain leaders trained for their positions would have succeeded.

Today’s organizations will benefit from doing the same. APQC’s best practices research on leadership capabilities show that organizations that conduct succession planning have smaller leadership skills gaps. These organizations conduct talent reviews and devise succession plans for many employees who work well below the executive level and this deep succession planning affords them future agility in their leadership ranks.

5. Culture drives leadership behaviors

In GoT, each kingdom has its own culture and customs that drive leadership behaviors. The Dothraki only follow people who have the skills to lead. The watch of the men who take the black does not end until death. A Lannister always pays his debts no matter the circumstances. In GoT, the leadership behaviors that are necessary for success are influenced by the culture that the leader sits in. And this is also the case in today’s business world.

In business, an organization’s mission and strategy set the tone for its leadership culture. And, an organization’s leadership culture influences which leaders are chosen, the behaviors that are acceptable, and how developing leaders are trained. Organizations must pay attention to how their culture shapes their leaders, and if they want to change how their leaders lead, they must focus on influencing the organizational mission and strategy first.

The beauty of Game of Thrones is that it indirectly teaches us some of the best (and worst) practices in business leadership. What will season 5 bring us? Will the Sand Snakes teach us about collaboration that goes right? Will we see more women break through the leadership glass ceiling in the Realm? Though the fantasy books and show are entertaining, many of GoT’s leadership lessons can be applied to today’s business leaders. Paying attention to the fatal flaws and practices of the GoT characters can shed some light on how we can be better leaders and adopt more effective practices in our organizations. 

Winter is coming for leaders in the business Realm. Is your organization ready?

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