Real Leaders

Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Game of Thrones (GoT) has become a cultural phenomenon since airing its first episode on HBO in 2011. Your favorite character may not have ended up on the throne but the best leader always prevailed. For a show that revolves around power, it’s important to comprehend how different characters obtained and sustained leadership. This review breaks down the leadership qualities of 4 dominant leaders; Ned and Sansa Stark, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen.




Lord Ned Stark: The Commander – Honorable, Traditional, Value Driven

From the first episode of the series Lord Ned Stark faced leadership challenges. Ned stayed true to hierarchy as there was a pecking order in Westeros that he wanted to honor. King Robert Boratheon asked Ned Stark to be his hand (right hand man) and he agreed. Although he knew this would put his family’s life in danger he felt a duty to the King. In Ned’s mind there is only right and wrong, no grey areas. This is problematic for Lord Stark because he failed to consider his constituents who held opposing values. Ned’s oversight leads to his demise after discovering the illegitimacy of the kids between King Boratheon and Cersei Lannister. In a dissonance of right vs. wrong Ned’s core values lead him to reveal the truth. Cersei Lannister, the most fearful woman in all of Westeros made sure truth would not be broken and handed the kingdom Lord Stark’s head.

Take away: Ned allowed his own personal values to blind him to potential risk and destroyed partnerships that could have been beneficial to him. The lesson learned is to not trust others will to prioritize the same core values as your own. Before you dedicate time to a business relationship first assess how your values align with the other party (or tyrant). Practicing self-awareness will stabilize your success as a leader.

Jon Snow: The Protagonist – Natural leader, Servant Leader, Altruistic

Jon Snow is the character we all want our world leaders to be. His core values of truth, empathy, community and courage lead him on a righteous path. He never has any interest in taking a leadership role, yet people are enticed to follow him. From the beginning of the show, Jon is trying to prove that he is more than a bastard and he belongs in the royal Stark family. Growing up an outsider in his own family made Jon wants to be as inclusive as possible. In a world full of agendas, Jon is one of the few to lead with 100% honesty. Jon’s strong suit is bringing people together around a common cause like he did with House Targaryen, Wildings and Northmen to defeat the Whitewalkers. The desire to prove himself drives him to become the greatest warrior in Westeros. He never enjoyed fighting in battle but wanted to serve his people. This lead to serve mentality made him easy to follow because of his honest intentions.

Take away: Everyone is much more willing to follow someone who is out on the battlefield with them. It is important that your followers know you are committed to a cause higher than yourself.

Daenerys Targaryen: The Visionary – Follows a Prophecy, Bold, Egotistical

The mother of dragons began her journey with a vision of conquering the throne that was stripped from her family when her father was killed. She envisioned a kingdom with no slavery or war and the lines of morality were clear as day but when she is faced with complicated scenarios she obstructed her main goal. She frees slaves by arming them so they can kill their masters. The goal was accomplished, but at what cost? After freeing the slaves, she fails to install any form of power structure. Once she leaves those cities, the masters take back power –  reinstituting slavery. In her final scene, Daenerys tells Jon “It’s not easy to see something that has never been before,” and followed a vision that she couldn’t sustain. Her lack of experience led to losing sight of why she was doing all this in the first place as she became the very thing she was fighting against – a tyrant.

Take away: If you are the kind of leader with big ideas, you must surround yourself with experienced leaders who can help share that vision but keep in mind that the mark of a true leader is one who wants their organization to be better than when they leave it.

Sansa Stark: The Observer- Patient, Observant, Value-driven

Sansa Stark is one of the most unexpected leaders in Game of Thrones. She spent her entire childhood dreaming of marrying a prince and living happily ever after. Instead of marrying Prince Charming, she is forced into multiple unhealthy relationships with atrocious partners. Sansa survived traumatic experiences that would have broken the average person’s spirit. Instead, Sansa makes the best of a bad situation by taking insights about the power of her competition while still maintaining the values instilled in her by her father, Ned. She listens politely and solves problems with patience.

Sansa’s journey allowed her to recognize whether or not someone is working for her best interest. Her strong judge of character presents itself in her distrust of Daenerys. Sansa wanted Wintefell to return to independence and she knew Daenerys would not allow it. Even after Daenerys is killed and Bran takes the throne, Sansa still demands that Winterfell remain independent – allowing her to become Queen of the North. The hardships of Sansa’s life never shifted her values. She remained patient and learned from everyone she came into contact with.

Take away: Sometimes the most important lessons are learned through adversity, remaining patient through life’s obstacles will result in long-term success.

Understanding these leadership principles displayed by the characters in Game of Thrones can teach us this; false leaders pursue their prophecies to paradise while true leaders recognize imperfections in pursuit of a better world. Honor is important but don’t expect the people around you to operate at the same level. Servant leaders are incredibly easy to follow but a vision with no plan leads to chaos. Patience comes through devastation and shortfalls but battling through life’s challenges will enhance your long-term decisions.  

Which character are you?

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