Lessons on Leadership Transition from Game of Thrones Episode 5

*** Article includes spoilers

Episode 5 of the Game of Thrones (GOT) was a case study on transitioning into a new leadership role. The lessons presented are absolutely NOT practices that should be followed and are couched in a cliché conundrum. “Do I want my people to love me or fear me?”

A little background, GOT documents a battle for ultimate power and control of the Iron Throne. There are seven kingdoms and a bunch of people who believe that they have a claim to the throne. Now that we have arrived at the final season, it is more of a smattering of contenders.

Last night, we witnessed Daenerys Targaryen’s approach to leading the kingdom. In deciding how she would transition into what she believes is her rightful place on the throne, she presented the false option of being loved or feared. Her real decision was whether she wanted to seize power despite the cost to the citizens of her kingdom or earn the loyalty and respect of her people.

Believing that the latter would take too much time or was unachievable, she chose to snatch power and establish a culture of fear through callous actions which in essence define who she will be as a ruler.

In the GOT realm, this type of brutality is pervasive and in some cases necessary to achieve an end goal.  What lessons however can we apply to real-world workplace situations?

Let’s be clear, stepping into a leadership role with an inherited team and constituency is challenging and necessitates decisions about how to manage and engage your people, however, whisking around the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West; committing war crimes in broad daylight is never the right way to command.

Instead of leveraging a title to wield authority and power, I opt for engagement and establishment of rapport to manage change and the shift of leadership.  In doing so, there are a few questions that guide me.

What are my assets?

As a new leader, an often overlooked asset is your leadership team. After several instances of transitioning new leaders into organizations and serving on several leadership teams, I see many benefits and uses for leadership teams. 

First, people on this team often know the community, staff, and board best. They also understand the key competitors of the organization and other relevant external and internal challenges. Their longevity, experience, and perspective are valuable. 

Unlike Ms. Targaryen, an effective leader listens to their leadership team and keeps them apprised of significant updates. Leaders help their advisors make informed decisions that benefit the organization.

It is not, however, enough to have a leadership team, convene them weekly, and even listen to their opinions. These teams have to be effective with validity defined by the leader and aligned with organizational goals. 

In my experience, there are a few fundamentals of useful leadership teams.

1. Effective leadership teams have a clear purpose and focus on clear objectives.  

2. These teams are diverse and represent essential perspectives of the organization.  While various views are present, organizational goals are the driving force behind these teams. 

3. Their time is well spent with leadership meetings resulting in clear takeaways and deliverables.

How do I build rapport and relationships?

Before we talk about how and even why building rapport is necessary, let’s understand that identifying stakeholders in your success as a leader is crucial.  Reaching out to staff is obvious but who else? Who are your partners? Who are your sponsors? Who from the community can you use as an advisor and mentor?

Dany Targaryen was an unknown commodity to the people of the North and King’s Landing. She knew very little about them or their pain points.  A lack of shared understanding is undoubtedly a challenge to a successful transition.

I am looking for insight into the organization, the community, and the field (past, present, and future). I like to format these discussions like an unofficial SWOT analysis. Inviting a team member for an afternoon coffee to get to know them better and understand what opportunities they see for the organization or their specific program is a typical method I’ve to initiate a conversation.

Whatever your style, it is crucial that you identify the right people to talk to and gather needs and perspectives from people integral to your success.

What is the foundation for working with my team and stakeholders?

The core of any working relationship is a purpose? People don’t follow leaders or support organizations just because they like them. They don’t stage coups simply because they hate the leader.

Individuals invest in contributing to the mission. Establishing and communicating that purpose is the job of leaders.

Choosing between leading by fear or love makes no sense.   Garnering the love of teams or making employees fear you are not sustainable methods for governing. Neither will last.

Engaging your team around a common purpose and defining associated objectives helps to identify what contributions are necessary and what roles teams members can play in the success of the organization.

In a medieval, fictional world, using a dragon as a key part of a leadership transition seems perfectly logical. In workplaces in the real world, it is better to avail ourselves of the power of communications and planning. Ensuring that people understand how they can participate in the shift and contribute to the future of the organization bolsters the likelihood of success.

What tactics have you used during a leadership shift?