10 things the Game of Thrones can teach us about leadership

Lannister

The HBO TV-series is a huge success, not only because a brilliant plot with unexpected turns, vivid characters and random nudity, but also its no-nonsense approach to life and leadership. What if you translated the Game of Thrones to running a business?

When lord Lannister tells his son Tyrion that “A good man does everything in his power to better his family’s position, regardless of his own selfish desires”, he sounds like a CEO defending his company and the shareholder value.

King Robert Baratheon asks his wife, Queen Cersei; “What is more, one or five?” She casually replies “five” and the king shouts “One!”. And goes on: “One is stronger than five. Five armies fighting against each other, compared to One strong army with a shared purpose.” That could be any leadership guru talking about the importance of a management team building the same company together, while the reality is often internal power struggles leading to defeat.

Lord Baelish tells lord Varys that, “Chaos is a ladder you can climb”, and suggests that in disorder, crisis and war, there are always opportunities for the ambitious. And sure, hedge funds can profit from betting right in a financial crisis and entrepreneurs build new business on disruptive technology, leaving creative destruction behind them.    

So put aside politically correct management books for a while, and imagine a corporate world without flat organisations, personal development, feedback meetings and emotional intelligence. What would the rough realities in the Game of Thrones teach us about leadership? Here are 10 things you need to know to survive and win.    

1. Trust no-one

This is probably the golden rule in the Seven Kingdoms. Since you can assume that everyone is acting out of self-interest (see point number 2), it is also best to assume that you cannot trust anyone to support you in the long run. In business life, who can you really trust? You can mostly expect people to follow the law, to not outright break deals or not try to openly fool you. But under the pretext of “it’s only business, nothing personal”, situations can quickly shift to someone else’s advantage, just like that, and parties that trusted each other a moment ago are suddenly on opposite sides. Eric Schmidt of Google used to be on Apple’s board, until very fast the two companies were competitors in the mobile war.    

2. Always act in self-interest

Everybody’s acting in self-interest, and the ultimate interest is to get the to the Throne. “The Throne” can be translated into the CEO’s corner office, control of a company or just plain money. Legendary investor Warren Buffett early discovered the importance of understanding the incentives, the underlying motivator guiding people’s behaviour. Quote from Buffett: “In business and in life, incentives make all the difference. Understand the incentives on both sides before engaging in a transaction. Most investment managers get paid for how much money they manage, not how much money they make you.” So, to survive in the Game of Thrones, do like everybody else, act in self-interest (and better understand other’s self-interest).

3. Use money, power and sex to get what you want

The right incentives work. In the Game of Thrones, it is the most basic incentives that are frequently used: Money, Power and Sex. The Lannisters can pay and bribe people with money, because they are the richest family in the kingdom. The king can use his formal power to get what he wants, but he must also be aware that the formal power is not always the same thing as the real power. Women (and men) undress in almost every episode to use their bodies and sex to get what they desire. To get what you want, the old rule is to play on people’s weaknesses. In today’s world, sex is complicated in most work places, but power and money still work quite well.

4. Seek vengeance and kill your enemies

Revenge is seldom productive, but it can be a huge motivator to keep you going. Every night before going to bed, Arya Stark repeats for herself the names of the people she one day aims to kill. You can ask what she will ultimately get out of vengeance, and how productive it really is, but it for sure keeps her moving. In business, revenge might take on the form of a scapegoat. At a failed company with disappointed shareholders, the CEO is “killed” in public, being blamed for lost value.    

5. Divide and conquer

In-fighting destroys any court, and the old “divide et impera” works both in the royal city of King’s Landing, and at the growing tech company, for example. For the one who pro-actively seeks to spread rumours, use back-stabbing, make intrigues and create conflicts, it will likely produce egoistic results (but not always for the company). And be aware, intrigue-making can backfire. Activist investors stir up turbulence to reach their goals, but in the case of Ebay, activist Carl Icahn finally had to back off.

6.  Information is everything

On the continent of Westeros, there is no internet or telecommunications. But there is an abundance of spies, ravens and rumours that travel faster than broadband connections. Like in any war, at the battles of the Seven Kingdom it is more important to spread the information that you are winning, than actually winning. The ultimate information-broker in the series, the slippery Lord Baelish, use information (true or fabricated) about just anything to reach his goals, and his brothel is one of his best sources. The company equivalent is probably the Christmas party.

7. Get a dragon

It’s all about having the upper hand, and a dragon beats everything. In business we call it competitive advantage, or even “unfair” advantage. Queen Khaleesi really starts out with nothing, but she has three dragon eggs. When the eggs hatch, she miraculously has three dragons, and a dragon is worth more than an army. However, with the power and self-confidence of the dragons, she eventually gets an army too. Knowing that her family, the Targaryens, once conqured the Seven Kingdoms, the other families are well aware of the threat. In businees life, a dragon can suddenly conquer the market like Apple did with the smartphone or Google with the search engine. Men come from the ground, but dragons hit from above. They are like an air force to a traditional army. But even though dragons can be very old, they sooner or later die.

8. If you have an argument, fight it out until one of you dies

It’s probably good to sit down and have a reasonable argument if you need to sort something out. Or you can schedule a feedback meeting, or get a relationship coach to help you. In the Game of Thrones, the surest way to end a discussion is to fight it out until one dies. End of discussion, forever. Very useful, and you can be sure that your adversary will not come back and ask for a new talk. In business, a company can fight so hard that a competitor finally goes bankrupt and out of business. For example, the discussion about whether Google has the right to aggregate media from media companies (like newspapers) has ended with many media companies dead. 

9. Don’t be noble

To be noble is not a winning strategy. To let your conquered enemy live, will only mean that that he will come back later and kill you instead. To keep your promises, which be most standards is a noble thing to do, means that you get vulnerable to the ones that do not keep theirs (see point 1 and 2). When Ramsay Bolton tells his enemies that he will let them live if they open the castle, it is not to be noble, but to get them to open the castle, and then kill them, flaying them House Bolton style.

10. Always expect the unexpected

The genius of the Game of Thrones is that you can always expect the unexpected, in the most unexpected ways. In the regular saga, heroes live. Here they die when you least expect it. In the dynamic world of the tech industry, that is exactly what happens every day. The fast-grower that is today’s star, is gone tomorrow, in the most unexpected way. It was expected, in Finland anyway, that Nokia would stay a world leader in mobile handsets. But Nokia was unexpectedly gone in just a few years. After a while, you get used to always expect the unexpected.   

Hope you enjoyed these leadership lessons from the game Of thrones, but remember, it’s just a fantasy. Not the real world.