Why Work is Basically Game of Thrones: Lessons in Power and Organizational Behavior as Taught by the Final Episode
Spoilers to follow
I was unhappy watching Sunday night’s finale of Game of Thrones on HBO — not just because of the cliches, but because it reminded me too much of the management psychology work I’ve been reading about in Jeff Pfeffer’s book Power (and have experienced in real workplaces). I read this book, now my favorite business book, at a friend’s suggestion, and I loved/hated seeing how the world of SVPs and CEOs aligns with that of hands of the king and masters of coin. Here are some of the parallels that jumped out at me:
“Have you considered the best ruler might be someone who does not want to rule?”
The minute I heard this line, I thought about the term “Humble Confidence” (a value at my company) or “Humble Narcissism” from Jim Collins’ Good to Great. The key word is humble, and the data show it makes for great leaders. For me personally, I’d always choose an accidental CEO who came up with a cool idea that took off rather than someone who set out to be a powerful entrepreneur for the sake of success.
How do you know? How do you know it'll be good?
Because I know what is good.
A more recent book by Pfeffer delivers the message “don’t be a lying narcissist,” demonstrating that “people gravitate to leaders who are “lying narcissists” even though the best leaders exhibit qualities such as modesty, authenticity, truthfulness…”. In front of the Iron Throne, Jon faces down this horrible truth. Dany’s narcissism has won over his compassion for King’s Landing. His solution to the problem is…not suitable for work.
“Sons of kings can be cruel and stupid”
From now on, rulers will not be born. They will be chosen by the lords and ladies of Westeros...
Lol. Even if this is just a jab at Joffrey, I felt it in my soul. I lucked out in that while procrastinating on this blog post, this journal article came as a define gift to the Reddit frontpage: “People in higher social class have an exaggerated belief that they are better than others”. Ever had a manager who thought their (and only their) ideas were all flawless?
But data-wise, this question has been explored: “Should the Founder’s son be CEO?”, asks Freakonomics (journal article linked therein). The answer, unsurprisingly, is…probably not.
“Rational” Doesn’t Always Win
Varys was right.
I was wrong.
It was vanity to think I could guide her.
Our queen's nature is fire and blood.
If I had to sum up Pfeffer’s book in 3 words, I’d choose “Life’s not fair.” The book is a long series of reasons that merit alone rarely makes one powerful. He loves to cite Rudy Crew, who undertook a transformation of Miami-Dade County schools with measurable success and then got fired. Those who are ‘right’ rarely get the best outcomes or resources, and in GOT, Varys and Jon Snow, who realized that their emperor Dany had no clothes, ended up dead and exiled.
Pfeffer would say power is sought and won rather than earned, so how fitting that the smallest but most politically brilliant character on the show would emerge in leadership and unscathed. Some fantasy this show was!
Right Place, Right Time
You have walked beside me...You are the most loyal of soldiers...I name you...The Queen's Master of War.
-Dany to Grey Worm
In the wake of reading Power, this line cut me so deep. Pfeffer’s book spent some time discussing the importance of being in the “right place” to ascend to power. In the business world, he cites that financial planning teams are more likely to gain the ear of the CEO and rise to power, noting the famous Robert McNamara who was a data guy at the right time, then became the first president of Ford to not have the name Ford (see above!).
This center of power changes over time — for example, this recent piece describes how Mark Zuckerberg sits next to whichever team he wants to absorb new material from, and lately, it’s been Artificial Intelligence.
Dany wants to continue her conquest and justifying her war efforts, and that’s why you see her giving extra pomp to her Master of War while largely shunning her other department heads. Loyalty + winning team = Master.
Being in the Right Place: A Structural Analysis of Individual Influence in an Organization on JSTOR
This research examined the relationships between structural positions and influence at the individual level of…
Bran the Broken, Long May He Reign
There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.
Nothing can stop it.
No enemy can defeat it.
At the end of this episode, the choice for the most powerful position in the world goes to Bran, largely on the basis of his institutional knowledge. In GOT, he knows everything that has ever happened, ever. Still, to real life people, this feels familiar to how we work for a few reasons:
For one, it’s an appeal to network science. Bran is a connector that bridges a structural hole in Westeros — he can connect the past and the future with his knowledge. I can think of several times in the past year that I’ve heard “well [person] is invaluable to us because they have deep institutional knowledge [of some specific domain]” and excel into leadership because of it.
For two, it’s an appeal to the use of data and evidence-based management. I can keep this paragraph short instead of telling you that “data” is important in management lately, I trust. And calling back to the last paragraph, organizational network analysis is the hottest thing in HR (it might be less hot if one manager knew all things omnisciently, though).
And lastly, the quote above could fit right in with Pfeffer’s book on Power. Famous CEOs like Jack Welch shape their own narrative through storytelling, speaking, writing, etc. They don’t include every little detail of each mistake they ever made, every failure, and so on (but they sure happened). The story you tell in an ascent to power is yours — own it.
On a Meta Note, Let’s Talk Weiss & Benioff
One final take from a friend (reused with permission) is that the real-life arc of HBO’s Game of Thrones, specifically the disappointment with showrunners D&D in season 8, is a great example of the Fundamental Attribution Error. In plain english, this refers to the bias toward attributing success to a visible leader/specific person versus a situation or broader set of factors.
In even simpler terms, maybe D&D got credit where it wasn’t due. George R.R. Martin wrote this story. A cast of excellent actors portrayed the characters. HBO marketing built the zeitgeist around a serialized fantasy show, etc. The Atlantic puts it well: “some CEOs are merely the most visible cogs in complex machines,” and yet Lucasfilm was willing to hire these two to run Star Wars while calling them “…some of the best storytellers working today.” Given the harsh critique they earned as writer/directors of season 8, maybe that promotion wasn’t right for them after all.
In his book, Pfeffer recounts many stories wherein a CEO from a flashy company was hired for another company’s turnaround, hailed as a hero, and then failed to deliver (but succeeded at maximizing their own self-interest). That hasn’t happened yet, but let’s hope it isn’t the case for Star Wars 😬