As Game of Thrones inches towards the finale, we analysed the show to get the best business lessons you can take away from the epic series
The world of business is dark and full of secrets. While HBO’s Game of Thrones series is associated with gore, nudity, epic battle scenes, bitter dynastic feuds and, of course, lots of dragons, there is much more to it from a business perspective.
You may not be the heir to the Iron Throne but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the confidence of one when you’re at work. For instance, Daenerys Targaryen is best known for her quest to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. However, from a different perspective, she’s also an incredible entrepreneur commanding fleets of strong armies behind her.
Khaleesi isn’t the only queen to take inspiration from. Cersei Lannister - despite her selfish nature - too has spoken many words of wisdom. She said: “When you play the game of thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.” And this couldn’t be more true in business. There will be times when massive challenges are around the corner but you must be focused on your end goal. And this is how Game of Thrones has encapsulated many leadership lessons. And if you pay close attention, it can help you to win many battles in the corporate world.
(1) Be the ruler you claim to be
How many times have we heard Dany recite all her titles? In the world of business, titles are important but the one holding the sword must remember to swing it and not runaway in times of crisis. For instance, Audrey Tang, author of The Leader's Guide to Mindfulness, believes having titles might present you with many opportunities but head honchos must do justice to it. “While certification and qualifications are perhaps a mark of learning, they are merely a gateway – you will always be the key,” she tells Elite Business. “Many leaders may become very attached to their titles yet this does not guarantee followers. Yes, they may demonstrate ability to learn or nod to your performance but most people will form their opinion on what they see day in and day out.”
Through the seasons, Khaleesi earned her titles by showing the true traits of a queen. And according to Tang, that is what you must do too to be respected. “Daenerys gained her followers through her behaviour and the rumours of her power may well have spread before but her success depends on her ability to live up to her name,” Tang adds.
In the words of Tywin Lannister: “Any man who must say I am the king is no true king." For Jon Snow, titles hath no importance in his world, for he sees the bigger picture and battles which are coming. “If you yourself live your titles through your performance, this in turn can help with your organisation living your values [and] mission statement rather than it being a pretty quote or worse –a tickbox on your website,” Tang advises.
(2) The Hand of the King can become a pillar of strength or the cause of death
A ruler is nothing without his or her advisors. There are many great leaders in the series, however their decisions are only as good as the advisors recommendations. It’s important to remember that you can’t be an expert at everything, believes James Dixon, head of digital at Cartwright Communications, the PR agency. “One of the key lessons of Game of Thrones is the importance of leaders surrounding themselves with the right advisors,” he says.
And it’s important to differentiate between being loyal and being a good advisor. “Advisors need loyalty to their principle of course but the best advisors don’t just slavishly follow their leaders whims – they are intensely practical and try to anticipate their future needs,” Dixon adds.
In business, someone might have the long-term vision but having smaller plans to execute that vision is a different matter. And characters like Tyrion Lannister, Davos Seaworth and Olenna Tyrell are great examples. On the other side are the sycophants, whose advice can have a corrosive effect. “Be particularly careful of the people telling you exactly what you want to hear,” he warns. “The arrival of Petyr Baelish or Melisandre to your leadership inner sanctum normally signals that someone isn’t long for the world.”
Just like Tywin Lannister told his grandson, Tommen: “A wise young king listens to his counselors and heeds their advice until he comes of age. And the wisest kings continue to listen to them long afterwards.”
(3) Stay updated like Lord Varys
Every entrepreneur knows how valuable networking is. With good contacts, you can scale your company at a much faster pace. In Game of Thrones, Lord Varys is famed for having his sources everywhere. “Lord Varys is an extremely well connected person of importance in GoT, often the first to receive important news in the seven kingdoms – even in an age where they don’t have access to the internet – all through the relationships he has built up,” says Peter Watton, spokesman at OddsMonkey, the match betting site.
He adds that having close relationships especially those in the specific vertical you operate in is extremely important. “It allows you to keep abreast of innovation in the industry for example or even prepare for a period of high activity which you otherwise would not have known about,” Watton continues.
(4) Always pay your debts
The House Lannister motto: “A Lannister always pays his debts” is not just to be interpreted in financial terms. “This can be applied to business in the sense that any help, guidance, mentoring or other forms of assistance you received along your journey, make a point to highlight and remember those who have helped you build and continue to help build your company,” Watton advises. “A business environment can often be seen as cold, unforgiving and shrewd which no doubt it can be but we have also experienced displays of selflessness and generosity that should be celebrated. Should those people or organisations need our assistance we should show the same willing.”
(5) The rebirth of the Mountain
Cersei Lannister nearly lost her loyal and scarily efficient bodyguard after his combat with Prince Oberyn Martell in season four. However, instead of giving up on him, she dedicated resources and time to rebuild him after which he emerged stronger than ever. “A softer version of this that we can apply to our teams and people is to not lose faith in someone who has previously shown brilliance,” Watton says. “Maintaining resource, in any industry is difficult, especially when it comes to good staff and that becomes even more difficult in a niche industry.” Indeed, your staff must be rewarded for their efforts and should there be any turbulence, you must bend over backwards to help them and ultimately give them the tools and support they need. It will only be a win-win for you as well as them. Just like Cersei and the Mountain.
(6) Find your niche – or your dragons
When trying to make a name in business, bosses may be tempted to follow the footsteps of those who have already succeeded. But what worked for others may not work for you. It’s important to assess what sets you and your brand apart. If Dany did what was expected of her, she wouldn’t be the mother of dragons and breaker of chains. “Find an advantage,” says Richard Seroter, vice president of product marketing at Pivotal Software, the software and services company. “Sometimes it's a key hire or partnership. Maybe unique technology that you've created. It's easier to win when you have a clear advantage. So play to your strengths. In the end, whoever has dragons, wins.”
(7) Have strong principles and learn from Ned Stark
From the beginning, Ned Stark was seen as a sincere and strong leader. “If you look at Ned, he embodies many characteristics – he is very authentic, he has strong values,” says Lindy Cozens, executive coach at Black Isle Group, the business consultancy. “But he is so transparent that he comes unstuck because rivals use it against him. He is so convinced by his own values that he assumes other people are the same.” Additionally, given the loyalty and leadership skills he has, he always wants to do the right thing without playing the political game. “You need political awareness – not necessarily to play politics – and that’s an important lesson for modern leaders,” she continues. While seeing the best in people is essential, trusting blindly is not a trait business leaders must have. And if done so, your startup might meet an end just like Ned Stark’s. So don’t lose your head.
(8) Work smarter not harder. And cast a large shadow
The dwarf, Tyrion Lannister proves that you don’t always need to be seen as powerful to be powerful. While leaders like Dany may be smart enough to be able to take over and defeat many powerful people, it was Tyrion who was always aware of possible blind spots. “Tyrion Lannister is a wise leader who values intelligence, he knows how to play to his strengths, effectively leveraging his family status and using his connections to build a network of strong relationships,” says James Reed, chairman of REED Recruitment, the employment agency.
Indeed, he might not be able to wield a sword like his brother Jamie but instead, uses his humour and intelligence to gain a competitive advantage. Despite never being in contention for the throne, he continually displays leadership qualities by mentoring Daenerys. “Every company would benefit from having an excellent, self-aware negotiator like Tyrion,” Reed adds. Indeed, you don’t have to be the loudest in the room, you just have to focus your efforts on how you can grow your business. And Lord Varys sums it up well. “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
(9) Jon Snow knows something
While Ygritte said he knows nothing, Jon Snow, is a true leader. In times of war, his actions encouraged others to follow regardless of the risks involved which resulted in him winning over the North. “In the office, this would translate as an inspired and engaged workforce, which is no simple feat to achieve,” Reed says. “Staff respect a manager who rolls up their sleeves and faces up to difficult tasks. It seems that many leaders could learn from Jon Snow’s style.” In fact, in season six, episode nine, Snow challenged Ramsay Bolton for a combat and said: “Aye, you have the numbers. Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn't fight for them?”
Learning from the King in the North, Reed believes power is a “brutal business.” “It comes with a high price and Game of Thrones illustrates time and again that those leaders who are willing to make great personal sacrifice make the best leaders, and those who don’t fail,” he adds.
(10) “Power is power”
If your mind went straight to Cersei Lannister hearing the said quote, you’re correct. She is the epitome of a calculating and manipulative leader who knows what she wants and is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve it. In many instances, Cersei looked like a defeated character, being ridiculed and demolished. “But in the background she was plotting her revenge and her strategy to reach the top position once again,” says Tom Bourlet, marketing manager of Natures Healthbox, the organic food and beauty company.
And, that’s what led to the Sept of Baelor being blown up, where she wiped out many of her enemies in one go. “This was incredibly tactical but patience and a rich strategy were required,” he continues adding that it’s a quality entrepreneurs must develop. Indeed, Cersei not only knows the language of violence and revenge but also how to get what she wants. She advised Sansa and said: “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon. The best one’s between your legs.” Whether you follow that or not, Cersei is a woman of substance.
Clearly, as every fan of Game of Thrones is aware, holding a position of power in Westeros is difficult, dangerous and not for the faint of heart. So is keeping your stance in the world of business. Many die along the way but it’s important to stay in the game and keep advancing toward success. And, if you continue to learn and grow, you can become a force that holds the North or even take over the Iron Throne.