What Can These ‘Game of Thrones’ Leaders Teach Your Company About Surviving the Speed of Change?

Article | Accountability Insights

by | May 7, 2019

There's more to the hit HBO series than dragons and White Walkers. Learn the top leadership lessons before the final season of 'Game of Thrones.'


Cersei Lannister said it best in season 1, episode 7 of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” While she is clearly referring to the ruthless world of dragons, betrayal, and fierce battles, the same could be said for any business organization. In the modern marketplace, rapid change is par for the course. In fact, according to a Palladium survey, some 72 percent of executives believe their business model will be under threat within the next five years. With the rise of cloud-based technologies, decentralized currencies, machine learning, and artificial intelligence (A.I.), organizations that can deliver innovation at speed have a competitive advantage.

The final season of Game of Thrones starts Sunday, April 14, and the kingdoms of Westeros are facing their greatest obstacle yet — the White Walkers and their army of the dead. Winter has finally come, and the three greatest leaders are scrambling to meet their own speed of change, the Night King, in the ways they see fit. But which leaders will survive, and what can modern executives learn from their actions?

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Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys is the true entrepreneur in the world of Game of Thrones. After she was born, she was immediately thrown into exile, only to turn three dragon eggs into a vast and loyal empire. Throughout her journey in pursuit of taking the Iron Throne, she has acquired a diverse army. Unlike other leaders, Daenerys did not take them by force. Instead, she freed slaves such as the Unsullied, gained the respect of Dothraki tribes, and gave them the option to leave her without punishment if they wished.

By giving her warriors the option to leave her at any time, she holds them accountable for their choices. Holding others accountable in a positive, principled way is simply doing two things: establishing expectations and managing unmet expectations in a way that will turn around performance and help others achieve the result. Daenerys leads on accountability and stays accountable herself for achieving her goal of taking back the Iron Throne. She has aligned her army with her vision, which will make her a strong competitor.

Her value of diversity in her empire is the competitive advantage that may help her outlast the army of the dead. Each unique group that joins her cause provides her with more skills and leverage to form necessary alliances and fight off the advancing White Walkers.

More than upholding ethical company policies and fostering a welcoming organizational culture, diversity in the workplace provides a competitive advantage. According to a report published in Scientific American, decades of research suggests that working with diverse groups of people encourages us to push the normal boundaries and think outside of typical limitations, inspiring team members to embrace creativity and innovation.

Jon Snow

The new King in the North has suffered his own trials and failures that have taught him valuable skills that have made him a better leader. From being the outcast in the Stark family, to forming a new family among the men of the Night’s Watch, and then finally defeating the Bolton army to take back Winterfell and claim the title of King in the North, Jon eventually learned how to form strong alliances and value his team.

More than anything, Jon has learned how to give and receive honest, constructive feedback. While this feedback has gotten him killed (later resurrected) and forced Cersei to deny helping his cause of fighting the army of the dead in the north, it has also helped him form strong alliances with the wildlings and Daenerys’s army, which may give him a chance to outlast the speed of change coming for Westeros. By being transparent and just, he has fostered loyalty, creating a strong following.

Both giving and receiving feedback are crucial to leading an accountable workforce. Constructive feedback is relevant for team members all through the spectrum. According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, it’s critical for improving performance. When employees — including managers and executives — are given an accurate, third-party assessment of how they are doing, they can better determine what’s helping or hindering their reaching their goals and make behavior and process adjustments accordingly.

Unfortunately Westeros lacks electronic technology. If they had made the discovery of the digital space, Jon and the North could greatly benefit from our newest digital tool, Propeller. While Jon travels to Dragonstone to convince Daenerys to allow him to mine the dragon glass that resides there and join his cause, he faces the challenge of keeping communication and connection to his kingdom in the North. Using Propeller’s key features of establishing Key Results, providing and seeking feedback, solving problems, and seeking wisdom–Jon could have stayed aligned with his kingdom and kept them up-to-date on their process of achieving their top Key Results.

>> Learn more about how Propeller can position your organization for sustained success. <<

Cersei Lannister

Cersei is currently Queen of the Seven Kingdoms through double-crossing, killing, and quite literally doing everything in her power to get there. Even though she is sitting on the Iron Throne, there is more knowledge to gain about her faults rather than her strengths with the White Walkers marching toward King’s Landing.

Throughout the series, Cersei only cares for herself and her family. While this may seem like a fair strategy in the early seasons, it proves to be her downfall as she loses all three of her children, her father, and even the person most loyal to her — her twin brother, Jaime Lannister. By revealing her true strategy of pledging her armies to go north, only to abandon the northern armies to die, she loses what loyalty is left of her team.

When a leader deflects blame instead of owning mistakes and failures, there is a high price to pay for the rest of the company. Employees experience burnout and disengage when they are constantly motivated by fear and stress. Instead, when leaders learn from mistakes and move forward by taking responsibility for results, even the ones that we don’t like, mistakes transform into opportunities.

A tool that Cersei could greatly utilize is the Workplace Accountability Index. The Index measures the level of accountability within an organization and how this impacts organizational agility through analyzing Feedback Seeking, Psychological Ownership, Creative Problem Solving, and Taking Effective Action. The report provides a snapshot of an organization’s strengths and areas of opportunity. Breaking down the data by department and level, leaders have a reliable tool to focus their attention and maximize results. The Index evaluates nine areas of workplace fitness, organized by Corporate Mindset and Organizational Agility. Cersei may discover that her greatest strengths are her family’s wealth and her creative problem solving using it, but she needs to improve on psychological ownership of her results. Although, she may be too prideful to consider taking the Index in the first place.

Applying these lessons will make you a fearless leader in your organization — even if that means taming your own dragons.