The title might be a trick question. After all, real world companies probably shouldn’t use a fantasy world for strategic direction, at least not one where more than 200 characters die in seven seasons.
Still, Game of Thrones (GoT) regularly captures millions of viewers. With each new episode characters need to be decisive, and those decisions can make or break them in a cruel world. Even with the outlandish plot we can categorize many of the leadership styles of the show into two broad groups.
Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsay and many more fall into this category. GoT has an unending supply of leaders who get ahead by bringing others down. These leaders in particular don’t stick to crushing their enemies, they also crush the spirits of their team. As such, their hold on the throne is tenuous; it is built off the backs of people bent over in fear. Putting people down might get people to do what you want, but for how long and with how much passion?
It’s easy to consider the fictional characters of Cersei, Joffrey and Ramsay as outliers. It’s hard to imagine many modern leaders choose a Machiavellian leadership style on purpose. Yet consider one study, in which employees with managers who were incompetent, inconsiderate, secretive and uncommunicative were 60% more likely to suffer a heart attack or other life-threatening cardiac condition. Another survey found that 60 million Americans are affected by abusive conduct within the workplace (a.k.a. bullying) and approximately 61% of those bullies are bosses.
What you might consider ‘tough love’ or a strict, but effective management style that delivers quality results can actually lead to the exact opposite. Employees who feel micro-managed, disrespected or unappreciated rarely live up to their full potential.
On the flip side, GoT characters like Daenerys and Jon Snow rose to power via belief in their leadership from others. Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that Jon was murdered and Daenerys roasted an entire army – they’ve been decent leaders. Both characters have shown they can rally others for support. Jon Snow claimed the title of “King in the North” while Daenerys has rallied time after time (see her full name) – or, as Missandei put it, “She’s the queen we chose.”
These leaders invest in individuals’ strengths. Whether commanding the Unsullied or the Freefolk, they take into consideration the individual strengths, preferences, and goals of each group. They know that without their teams, they will not see success.
A Gallup poll found that when an organization fails to focus on individuals’ strengths, employee engagement plummets to 9%. Meanwhile, when leaders make individuals’ strengths a priority, employee engagement surges to 73%. The same poll found that followers react positively when their leaders exude “trust, compassion, stability, and hope.”
The best managers are the ones who build a coalition, not a hierarchy. They must be willing to get in the trenches and work with employees, and they must recognize each individual’s valuable contribution to the team.
As the great and terrible Cersei Lannister said, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Lucky for us, choosing to be a supportive leader isn’t a life or death decision.