Features | From Pivot Magazine

Leadership secrets from Game of Thrones

Beheadings and bastard sons make for a spellbinding story—and some pretty good business lessons, too

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Photo illustration of 'Game of Thrones' character leading a business meetingFor all his awareness of what needs to be done, Snow is woeful when it comes to how, leading to the most nuanced and absorbing discussion in Win or Die (Jon Snow: Courtesy of HBO; sword by iStock; meeting by Shutterstock)

West Point and the Royal Military College aren’t the only places where they teach Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old classic The Art of War. Instructors at business schools have a long history of drawing their examples from fields where the stakes are higher than the merely financial. But Bruce Craven, director of Columbia University’s Advanced Management Program, has ramped up the stakes—and the fun—by illustrating his lessons with the cautionary tales liberally supplied by Game of Thrones. The fictional world of Westeros created by George R.R. Martin, known as GRRM (pronounced, fittingly, “grim”), is as amoral and grotesquely violent a setting as anyone has ever concocted, a place where the price of failure is fatal. And, given the popularity of HBO’s TV adaptation of the novels, events in Westeros are known to millions. Virtually anyone who opens Craven’s Win or Die: Leadership Secrets From Game of Thrones and looks at the title of Chapter One, “Don’t Be Ned Stark!” will know what’s coming next. (For those who don’t: that would be advice on how to avoid being beheaded.)

Stark’s problem, says Craven, is that he thinks anyone who doesn’t rank values as he does, with duty and honour at the top, doesn’t share those values at all. Instead of talking to his peers and listening intently, Stark contemptuously dismisses potential allies. That leaves him isolated—and in Westeros, an isolated leader can measure his lifespan in days. 

Not that Ned Stark’s mistakes area central topic in Win or Die. Like GRMM, Craven is most interested in survivors, those who have a chance to learn from their mistakes—that means primarily the two characters who dominate the story line as it draws to a close, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. The latter elicits Craven’s admiration for her “authenticity,” her actual—and frequently demonstrated—desire for a better life for everyone in Westeros, not just for her own interests. Craven contrasts her with the other strong female leader, Queen Cersei, consumed by her own ambition. Cersei is thus a skilled but limited “directional” leader, a style that flourishes only “when your followers are low on motivation and low on skill.”

It’s Jon Snow, though, who features in the most intriguing parallel of the many that Craven draws between Westeros and real-world business history. Snow, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and in charge of the enormous wall that guards humanity from its enemies, has courage and strategic insight. 

Book cover for 'Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones'In his book, Bruce Craven illustrates business lessons with the cautionary tales liberally supplied by Game of Thrones

He realizes, in fact, that the weaponized zombies north of the wall, the White Walkers, are a technological game changer. He thus displays the awareness all corporate leaders need. “Every industry in the 21st century,” writes Craven, has to face “the fact that blue-eyed wights will arrive.” Snow’s situation puts Craven in mind of one that once faced Barry Salzberg, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, the giant professional services network.

For all his awareness of what needs to be done, Snow is woeful when it comes to how, leading to the most nuanced and absorbing discussion in Win or Die. He misses the distinction between negotiation and persuasion. Snow is fine negotiating terms with the Wildlings, hostile fellow humans equally threatened by the undead. He lays out unpalatable facts, lets the Wildling leader face up to them and then agrees to what he must. Snow tries the same with his subordinates, when what he really needs to do is persuade them to buy into his vision. It will require each of them to change the beliefs of a lifetime and to trust hereditary enemies. Astonished that his officers do not wrench themselves into accord, Snow shuts down all discussion. 

He starts issuing orders, essentially abandoning efforts to make believers of his subordinates, and turns followers into opponents.

Part of Snow’s blindness comes from his sense of urgency, but more, in Craven’s summation, comes from his foolish optimism that all he needs to do is to present the facts. It’s an approach Deloitte’s Salzberg would have sympathized with, even though it’s one he wisely avoided. Over a decade ago, Salzberg became convinced Deloitte had to overhaul its employee education and make a significant financial investment in its own training facility. The need was so obvious to him that he optimistically prepared a presentation to the board of directors for approval, without first testing the waters. At a cocktail party the night before the meeting, a colleague warned him the board, whose members had not previously been exposed to Salzberg’s reasoning, would reject the proposal.

Realizing his error, Salzberg and his team spent the entire night adjusting the proposal into a request to board members that “they join him on a journey of considering the choice of Deloitte University.” In 2009, the groundbreaking ceremony was held; by 2013, Deloitte was the largest accounting firm in the world by revenue, a position it’s held almost every year since.

Win or Die is full of nuggets like this, all memorably told, thanks to the fictional comparisons. In a final irony, Craven points out that the HBO series itself was rescued at its very beginning by a difficult but smart leadership decision. The pilot episode was widely panned by industry insiders for its confusing story line. HBO and the show runners could have packed it in, refusing to throw good money after bad. Or they could spend the money to fix it. They opted not to die, and won big.