Leadership Lessons from Game Of Thrones

Daenerys Targaryen overlooking Mereen

 Thanks xfinity!

For some reason my DVR didn’t pick up episode 35 of Game Of Thrones when it aired. Perhaps because Sunday nights have turned into a DVR cage match of good TV, or perhaps because my 5-year-old son hits record every time Uncle Grandpa is on. Whatever the cause, I’m glad this happened because I ended up watching GoT on HBO On Demand, including the commentary that immediately followed the show, which I otherwise would not have seen. Co-creators D.B Weiss and David Benioff break down on a pivotal scene in which Daenerys Targaryen chooses to stay in recently conquered Mereen and rule, rather than push forward to Westeros in pursuit of the iron throne.

“I will do what Queens do,” she says. “I will rule.”

Weiss comments, “This scene shows Dany learning a lesson that I think all revolutionaries learn at one point or another which is that, conquering in many ways is a whole lot easier than ruling.” 

he adds  “She’s driven by kind of a deep empathy. Her empathy allows her to look at the people of Westeros and say, ‘Why the hell would they ever follow me if I hadn’t proven myself through my actions to be somebody worth following, why would they let me rule if I hadn’t proven myself to be somebody who has ruled well somewhere else.’”

He goes on to say that Daenerys, The Mother of Dragons, is driven by a deeper empathy than probably anyone else on the show.

 Daenerys holding dragon from Game of Thrones

Are you calling the mother of dragons a softie?

In the workplace, little things including listening, teamwork, willingness to learn, flexibility, self-awareness, patience, and yes – empathy are often referred to as soft skills.

Far too often these “soft skills” are considered nice to haves, when they are actually essential to good leadership. There is also a soft=feminine=weak rub of corporate misogyny that’s another topic altogether. By heralding Daenerys Targaryen as perhaps the most empathetic of anyone on the show, and showing her rise, Game Of Thrones offers important lessons in leadership. Khaleesi can put herself in the shoes of others, and she thinks strategically for the long term.

In contrast, take Joffrey Lannister (see what I did there) who just might have had zero empathy. His style of rule was brute force, not without regard for how he was viewed, but rather with the warped idea that he was a brilliant, respected leader who would gain further respect through fear. In the workplace there are plenty of Joffreys. They use reply-all emails instead of crossbows, but they are child kings just the same.


Joffrey Game of Thrones Monty Python mashup meme

You are crazy if you don’t fix yourself

Wikipedia defines Empathy as having “many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, such as caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.”

Wikipedia also describes the neuroscience behind empathy. Oversimplified: there are mirror neuron systems that help you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. People have varying levels of naturally active mirror neurons, but nearly everyone can improve their abilities in this area. Who is incapable of empathy? Schizophrenics, psychopaths, narcissists, and those with bipolar disorder, the article suggests. This blog post is not a commentary on mental illness, I’m no expert in that area. But unless you have a mental illness that blocks empathy, I can’t think of a reason why anyone, especially a leader, wouldn’t want to develop this skill.

Mugatu says That Daenerys she's so hot right now

So, uh, we should crucify and poison our colleagues?

Game of Thrones is massively popular. It is one of the few shows that most of us try to watch the night it airs, or face social media quarantine for fear of spoilers. All the skull crushings, moon door suicides, and pet Reeks drive conversation, and there’s leadership (good and bad) being taught in every episode. And just like in today’s work world, the best person doesn’t always win. Sometimes good leaders get pushed out and replaced by less qualified ones. It happens. But as the seasons progress, you see who you end up rooting for. You see who perseveres. I haven’t read the books so I don’t know what happens next, but I think the mother of dragons will be around for awhile, and while she’s made some errors in judgment, I’m rooting for her.

I guess the problem is that when you’re Joffrey, you have no clue you’re Joffrey. Nobody would dare tell you that you’re Joffrey because they know you wouldn’t be able to handle it. So they let you go about your business, navigating around you hoping one day someone will take you out.

Same with leaders in the workplace. The short sighted may take an early lead, but when it comes time to truly run a business, to build a team, they lose – not to the slow and steady, but to the smart and self-aware.


Watch the HBO Inside The Episode Commentary with D.B. Weiss and David Benioff here:

Chris Eberle

One Comment

  1. Hi Chris,

    Very nice post. I’m rooting for Aria. So far she doesn’t have much to lead, but – and I haven’t read the books either- I think she is a great leader in the making.

    The mother of dragons … ok on Empathy but a little too high on Ambition.

    Let’s wait and see.

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