Game of Thrones: 7 Lessons in Business & Leadership

June 20, 2013 / Leadership, Strategy / 1 Comment /

In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. It’s a lot like being the leader of a business…ok, well not the you dying part…but the kingdom could fall. 

Unless you were living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard a little something about HBO’s smash success, Game of Thrones. Based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R Martin, the books follow several “houses” in fictional worlds of Westeros and Essos whose members are at various places in life trying to accomplish different goals.

Okay, that’s a ridiculously simple description of thousands of pages of plot and script. Suffice to say it’s not a warm and fuzzy series. Favorite characters die right and left, villains go on unharmed. To some, a lot like the business world.

Now, without spoiling anything quite yet, let’s just say we learned a big, big lesson from Martin and the producer’s with last Sunday night’s episode. Social media was abuzz with reactions and I myself screamed at the TV so loudly I think they heard me 2 houses down.

Martin is notorious for his flair for the dramatic and his real to life writing style, that sometimes the good guys don’t always win…or do they…remains to be seen. I mean…should we really look to leaders so unscrupulous as Tywin Lannister? So it seems like the world in the Game of Thrones may not be a great source of inspiration for business leaders and employees – but it can offer us some great lessons.

You can learn a whole lot about leadership and strategy from the Game of Thrones series and this whole crazy mess in Westeros and across the Narrow Sea. Sure, in the corporate world the stakes are a bit different, but the lessons still hold true. So, what are some business lessons from Game of Thrones… 7 little tidbits from across the 7 kingdoms of Game of Thrones:

1)   Consider Carefully Who You Trust: Okay, so maybe in Westeros it’s best not to trust anybody, though we can’t lead in business without trusting anybody, nor can we have a high performing culture. However, we do need to be careful in taking the time to build trusting relationships and choosing those we confide in and those we choose to follow. Trusting the wrong person in the Game of Thrones usually results in decapitation, dismemberment of any sorts, or, if you’re lucky, a quick death by poison. In the business world, life is not so dramatic (though sometimes it can feel that way), but the point holds true- trusting the wrong person can cost you your business. Not gaining the trust of your soldiers – employees and customers – can also cost you your business.  Trust impacts performance, customer engagement, and the brand. It’s critical for leaders to build trusting relationships with employees, stakeholders, and customers. “I swear to you, sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.” ― George R.R. Martin

2)   For God’s Sake, Keep Your Commitments:As we learned in the episode “The Red Wedding”, breaking your word can cost you pretty much everything. If you’re embroiled with the Lannister’s, maybe it will cost you your life, but in general, breaking your word can cost you your relationships with employees, stakeholders, and customers. Honor your commitments. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don’t over promise and under deliver. “There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” ― George R.R. Martin

3)  Learn to Work and Lead Across Generations: Anyone who watches Game of Thrones or reads the Song of Ice and Fire Series knows that King Joffrey Baratheon sucks. Seriously, he’s a horrible little… well let’s just say punk. But in season three, we’ve seen some (slight) progress in his kingly behavior thanks to some guidance from his older betrothed, Margaery Tyrell and her bad-ass tell it like it is grandmother. That’s two older generations sharing knowledge and experiences with a younger generation. Yes, much like in real life there is resistance to change; however, it’s a start for Joffery. It brings up a good point: the younger generation may need some guidance, but give them some help and a chance and they may surprise you. Or shoot someone with a crossbow. One or the other. Let’s hope for the positive.“A lord must learn that sometimes words can accomplish what swords cannot.” ― George R.R. Martin

4)   Always Pay Your Debts: Thank you, House Lannister (it’s their unofficial motto), for reminding us. Pay your debts, be they financial or some other type of debt. It’s difficult to run a business with personal or financial debts weighing you down. Don’t add to your worry, don’t not make good on promises to employees, stakeholders and customers. And for goodness sake, don’t spend all the royal coin on some lavish war…I mean acquisition or merger…and then cook the books and try to hide the loss. “A Lannister always pays his debts.” ― George R.R. Martin

5)   Dragons are the Answer: Okay, maybe not real dragons, but know what sets you apart and makes your organization special. Use the assets you have at your disposal. Daenerys Targaryen has her precious dragons, but all businesses have something that is unique and appeals to consumers. Know what that is, be able to articulate it, and use it wisely to help your business succeed.  “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” ― George R.R. Martin

6)   Be Good at Strategy: When you’re planning your strategy, TAKE ALL OF THE ABOVE into Consideration. Be willing to listen to others. Be open to feedback and possible changes in direction. SPOILER ALERT – it might prevent you from ending up like poor Robb Stark“Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle.” ― George R.R. Martin

7)   Know When to Cut Your Losses: If they lock you in a room and start playing your enemy’s theme song, run: Okay, maybe that one’s just for the fictional world of Westeros. But seriously, pay attention to your environment, your competition, your products, and services. If you get that sinking feeling or you hear “The Rains of Castamere” playing, cut your losses and move on. Now, this doesn’t mean give up; however, at least have the self-awareness to swallow your pride and regroup and re-strategize. You’ll be better for it in the long run and so will your business.“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.” ― George R.R. Martin

So, in summary, Game of Thrones has some valuable lessons to teach us in business. Build trust and trust carefully,  keep your commitments, collaborate and share knowledge; pay your debts, know what makes you unique and different and leverage those things, have a solid strategy,  and don’t be afraid to course correct as needed!

Thankfully for all of us, real life is not as dramatic or brutal as The Game of Thrones, but the story does provide lots of helpful hints that may help you survive the game.

About Scott Span , MSOD: is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions - an Organizational Improvement & Strategy firm.  He helps clients in facilitating sustainable growth by connecting and maximizing  people –> performance –> profit™, creating organizations that are more responsive, productive and profitable.

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1 Comment

  1. Liviana

    March 19, 2014
    / Reply

    you forgot the most important one: the Iron Throne is uncomfortable to sit upon due to the fact that its made of swords. The moral lesson Aegon intended for his heirs was that no ruler should ever be complacent on his throne.

    Business leaders should always be looking for improvements. They should never be complacent.


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