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Lessons on leadership from Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones may be fantasy - but it offers several real-life lessons on how to be an effective, and not-so-effective, leader, says Sarah Pearce.

Game of Thrones season 7 is about to start and it looks set to be the bloodiest, most engaging season ever. One thing that Games of Thrones has always had in abundance is a variety of leaders. Those who are born into leadership roles, like Robb Stark was; those who believe themselves to be great leaders but are sadly lacking in some area or another like Tyrion Lannister; and Daenerys Targaryen who has developed her leadership to a point that, with the help of a trio of secret weapons, will soon take over the world.

Let’s explore the strengths and shortcomings of a few standout characters and see if we can find some takeaways for a modern business leader.

Cersei Lannister – The ruthless, self-serving leader

Cersei is an easy one to pick on first. You know that she has questionable taste in partners, and that scandalous relationship with her brother has caused them endless trouble to maintain. We all remember what happened to the youngest Stark when he got in their way...

Cersei isn’t a leader because the people chose her. She doesn’t even try to be nice to anyone who doesn’t have power directly. She gets things done the way she knows how, and doesn’t mince words when she doesn’t like it. In one word – she’s a tyrant.

Another, real-life CEO was often called a tyrant almost as often as he was called a genius. Steve Jobs’ employees loved and hated him. Those who couldn’t take the constant pressure he was known to have placed on everyone around him, the constant demand for top-notch performance, quit. Those who could take it became world leaders in design and engineering; not to mention rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Jobs started Apple with a partner who was also a questionable choice. They may have shared the vision but they didn't share similar values. Wozniak quit after the Apple II division was unjustly treated – in his opinion. He couldn’t handle the pressure Jobs put on everyone, and even today he is constantly denigrating just about every Apple product that comes off the line.

Like Jobs, Cersei failed at building a culture of trust; actually, that applies to just about everyone in Game of Thrones. Leaders need to build trust with their employees before they can push them to the limits. Only then will the company stay together when it gets truly tested.

Daenerys Targaryen – The accidental leader taking it in her stride

Daenerys Targaryen fell into her leadership role. Originally, it was supposed to go to her brother. On the fateful night when she became Mother of Dragons, Daenerys learned to believe in herself, and she began the path towards the throne that her brother had always craved.

What a journey it has been! She’s slowly developed strength, skills, contacts, supporters, and the product that made her famous – her dragons! She’s demanding on the team that she’s built, nothing but 100% loyalty is acceptable.

Daenerys’ primary weakness was her naivety. Many people offered to help her but in the end most proved to be just another name on the growing list of betrayers. She tried to make the best choices for all the people she ran into, but often that was taken advantage of.

Real-life leader, Benazir Bhutto’s story was a lot like Daenerys’. She returned to Pakistan after being exiled to the UK, all the while her political party was using her as a rallying point. Her party, upon her return was already set up to make her the first female prime minister of Pakistan. Her political career was peppered with struggles against the other leaders within the government and military. Finally – after 4 terms - she was exiled again, then assassinated. Many believe Bhutto knowingly risked her own life for the sake of her people.

Hopefully when Daenerys ascends to the throne of Westeros, she’ll fare better than Bhutto did. I personally am on the Mother of Dragon’s team!

Joffrey Lannister – The narcissistic one

Any man who must say ‘I am the King’ is no true king.” Tywin Lannister’s words are exactly why King Joffrey wasn’t an effective leader. Joffrey was weak. He didn’t’ lead by example. He didn’t have the trust of his people. He didn’t have any loyal subjects. He also didn’t have any real power – Cersei saw to that. Joffrey was a total narcissist and, oh, how we loved to hate him.

The one thing this leader did have going for him was connections. His grandfather was the leader of the Lannisters, his father the king of Westeros. He also had his mother, Queen Cersei, whom we’ve also talked about. Joffrey also had fear on his side. He was not above humiliating his competition, or crushing them, in fact it fed his ego to do so.

Our real world example for Joffrey is US President Donald Trump. He’s got no special skills, he’s not a particularly well spoken leader, and he’s certainly not inspiring many citizens’ loyalty. What he does have is powerful connections to business leaders all over the world, to his Republican party, and apparently the Russians too. He also uses fear religiously: fear of being deceived, fear of the unknown, fear of repercussions.

Say what we will about President Trump, we don’t really know yet if he’ll be more or less effective than Joffrey was. Given how closely the two of them act , I don’t have high hopes!

Jon Snow – The reluctant leader

Jon Snow doesn’t picture himself as a leader. He’d much rather be drinking with his people than leading them. His half brother was much better suited to lead, if only Robb hadn’t gotten involved in that political marriage.

Still – Jon is the one who will likely lead the North to victory against its enemies… if not victory then some semblance of safety. Why? Because he leads by example. I doubt he leads by example solely because Forbes magazine says its a way to motivate people to follow; but rather because he likes to act more than he likes to lead. Jon is humble but fearless, which captures everyone’s attention; both his followers and his competitors.

The best leaders forge ahead, not rest on their laurels while their employees do all the heavy lifting. Richie McCaw, New Zealand's All Blacks captain for two rugby World Cups, is that kind of leader. In his list of accomplishments, he has won three World Rugby Player of the Year awards, which highlights how much effort he put into his enduring success.

His teammate, Aaron Mauger explained why he believed Richie was such an effective leader: his mindset. McCaw took no shortcuts and he dedicated himself 150 percent to whatever choice he made in life. Just like Jon Snow, Richie became a people's hero.

Will Jon send Westeros to the championships? I hope not! #TeamDaenerys

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age.