By Dr. James Eyring, Chief Operating Officer, Organisation Solutions
As a big fan of the Game of Thrones books and television series, I must confess that I actually liked the HBO series ending. However, like many fans, I questioned whether the surviving Lords of Westeros selected the best ruler. So, I thought I would apply the science and research of leadership to examine who would rule best as king or queen.
To make this decision, we should first be explicit about the definition of leadership. Based on research and theory, a leader’s primary function is to coordinate a collective effort to succeed against competition1. This definition implies that leaders should act for the good of the group and that their ultimate measure is the team or organisation’s performance. To achieve successful performance, they must plan and set direction, help the team collaborate, work across different factions, etc.
Giving great speeches, telling stories and being charismatic are interesting capabilities, but they don’t lead to greater team or organisation performance. There are other factors that predict leader success, but for this article, I will focus on how the characters have led teams in the past.
Before reviewing characters, I have a couple of disclaimers:
- First, Spoilers ahead!
- Second, this story has dragons, magic and resurrection in it, so let’s take leader selection with a grain of salt and a light heart
- Third, we only get to see snippets of actual leadership in the show and book. We don’t observe them in many team settings, don’t have engagement survey results, KPIs, etc.
- Finally, many main characters have died through the series leaving us with limited leader bench
Let’s face it, this is a succession planning nightmare.
Dany was a fan favourite for several seasons. She went from being a wedding prize to the mother of dragons. She freed the Unsullied and tamed the Dothraki. And, she is charismatic. She gives great motivational speeches and rides a dragon (I would like to see any CEO top that!).
However, she is not a great people leader. When she took over the city of Meereen, she was unable to rule effectively and was unable to negotiate with her neighbouring cities. Her approach to success was to kill all the rulers around her to succeed. This fits with a dominance or ‘might makes right’ leadership theory. Ultimately, she killed citizens in a city that had surrendered to her. She forgot, or never knew, that her role as leader was to help her people succeed and prosper. Instead, she wanted to impose her will and build the world in her image (reminds me of the Emperor from Star Wars!).
I like Jon’s character. He is always honest, loyal and does what he thinks is right. Unfortunately, this does not always serve him well. However, let’s focus less on his characteristics and more on his people leadership.
Let’s be honest, getting stabbed and killed by half of the people you lead is not a great sign of future leader success (consider this a really low engagement survey result). Luckily, he was resurrected and came back to fight another day. Unfortunately, his future battles did not go well for him. He led an army into the Battle of the Bastards and was losing badly until his sister Sansa arrived with another army. Worse was the final Battle of Winterfell. They used appalling tactics (what general would send their entire Calvary to attack an enemy in the dark?) and lost badly until Arya stepped in to save the day.
You can argue that he faced overwhelming odds in these battles. However, Jon repeatedly failed to lead his group to succeed against competition. Most of his team at the Wall did not trust him and the Northmen only begrudgingly followed him. He has some of the characteristics needed for leaders, but does not have the people leadership, strategic or collaboration skills to run a large, complex organisation with multiple competing factions.
Arya was never a contender for the throne. Her path was different than the other Stark children. Instead of being put into leadership roles, her character was thrust into survival mode for most of the series and then she trained as an assassin. Her focus was on revenge and she often cited a list of those she planned to kill. Not exactly a great example of ‘leading a group effort to succeed’. However, any king or queen in their right mind would want her on-side.
Cersei became queen, albeit briefly. She was excelled at the game of thrones, scheming and making and braking alliances to help her succeed. However, it was always about her success, not the success of others. This became very clear when she agreed to join an alliance of armies against the Night King, only to betray the alliance in order to hold her army in reserve and weaken her enemies. She sacrificed the people of the north to keep power. In the end, she used the people of King’s landing as human shields. In short, she was not trying to lead others to succeed. She was trying to preserve her position.
Bran was a surprise choice to be king. His selection was foreshadowed in the first book, but not in the television series, which probably led to some fan disappointment.
In the series, he had limited opportunities to show leadership, but he did have one key event. He led a small team and travelled from Winterfell to the Wall and eventually on to meet his mentor, the Three Eyed Raven. While learning, he disobeyed instructions from the Three Eyed Raven and inadvertently betrayed his location to the Night King. This decision led to the death of his mentor, his direwolf and Hodor. Leading a small team to disaster does not qualify you to run the Seven Kingdoms.
One of the reasons cited for his selection is that he holds the memories of the past, which will help him make good decisions. Would you pick a leader that has read thousands of leadership case studies? Knowing the past is helpful but is not equivalent to practicing and building experience in leading others. More importantly, he does not seem to be concerned with leading the kingdom. In one of the last scenes of the show, his Small Council is meeting to discuss the future of the kingdom. Instead of participating in the meeting and leading his kingdom, he goes to search for visions of a dragon.
In the books, Tyrion does lead a group to some success. He generally thinks strategically and has been Hand to several rulers. However, that is also his problem. He has aligned himself to different rulers through the series and no one in Westeros would (or should) trust him as King. He is one of my favourite characters of the series but has never been on a path to kingship.
I saved the best for last as Sansa is my choice for Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. She is not a perfect choice but has compelling reasons for succession to the throne.
Sansa started as a naïve girl who was enamoured by the idealistic life of a princess. She survived betrayals, abuse and many hardships and is probably one of the most resilient characters in the series. More importantly, she came back from all of this and convinced the Knights of the Vale to follow her north to war. She won the Battle of the Bastards and then convinced the Northmen to name Jon as King of the North. In most cases, the Northmen were more willing to follow her lead than Jon’s. She made decisions that were in the best interest of her people, even when it meant that she had to ally herself with Daenerys to defeat the Night King.
She was the only character that was able to unite two of the seven kingdoms without force and likely would have been able to ally herself with others. She is politically astute, can motivate others and has led large teams to succeed. In the end of the series, she even ensured that the North would remain separate from Westeros, which is aligned with the expectations of her followers.
Sansa may not have wanted the throne and the north may not have wanted her to have it, but she is one of the better leaders alive at the end of the series. I would have loved to see her take the throne. Still, Bran may develop as a good leader. After all, he has mystical powers on his side that we don’t completely understand. And, this is a world where Dothraki and Unsullied armies can be annihilated one week only to be replenished in a few weeks’ time. Strangers thing have happened in a Game of Thrones.
1For a good summary article on leader research, see: Kaiser, R. B., Hogan, R., & Craig, S. B. (2008). Leadership and the fate of organizations. American Psychologist, 63(2), 96.
Dr. James Eyring is the Chief Operating Officer of Organisation Solutions and leads the global consulting practice. In addition, he specialises in leadership and talent management and works with companies and executives to build capabilities they need to fuel future growth. As part of his role, he provides coaching to global and top regional leaders. Contact James