Business and organizational leadership director weighs in on leadership in ‘Game of Thrones’

Steve Leonard, lecturer and director of the business school’s Master in Business and Organizational Leadership program, shares his thoughts on the leadership styles of the characters left contending for Westeros’ Iron Throne.

©HBO, used under fair use

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not a bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” — Jim Rohn

With two episodes remaining in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, “Game of Thrones,” the team behind the HBO series had served up 71 episodes, 15 major battles, and 5,862 deaths. By any measure, those are figures as epic as the series itself. Then Sunday night arrived with the penultimate episode: the last standing armies faced off at the gates to King’s Landing, Daenerys Targaryen took to the skies over the city astride Drogon, and viewers were “treated” to violence, death, and destruction on a level unimaginable before this final season. What awaits in the climactic episode is anyone’s guess at this point.

Not surprisingly, the episode also continued an exploration of the individual leadership styles in conflict in the quest for the Iron Throne and rule of the Seven Kingdoms. Each of Martin’s main characters exhibits a distinct approach to leading, uniquely reflected in their evolution over the previous seven seasons. Even as the characters grew into their roles, their leadership styles remained largely consistent; their values, character, and morality unchanged over time.

Walk into any boardroom and you’re likely to encounter many of the same archetypes. It would hardly be surprising to find that when sketching his character profiles, Martin drew on the wisdom of business masterminds Peter Drucker or Jack Welch. Whether in business or a fantasy realm, intense competition and high stakes tend to attract the same types of leaders. In fact, from Reddit to Twitter, debating “Game of Leaders” has become a Monday morning staple during the viewing season.

So, which models best fit each character? Who is the better leader among those vying to be the single ruler of Westeros? Who will survive season eight? The answers to those questions may very well be the key to predicting how the series will end. Or they may just lead to more questions. It is, after all, Game of Thrones — a series known for defying the odds.

Aegon Targaryen — the character formerly known as Jon Snow — is a classic charismatic leader. An inspirational and empathetic leader who sets the example in everything he does, he creates a sense of shared purpose, nurtures the passions of his followers, and unites them all under a single vision. He also reveals a humility rare among his peer leaders. Odds of survival: 3/1.

Sansa Stark, who endured a gauntlet of personal trials over the first seven seasons, is best defined as a democratic leader. Her ability to forge a coalition and unite different factions under a common vision is representative of democratic, or participative, leadership. Her decision-making reflects a leadership style open to the opinions of others, a key component in effective team building. Odds of survival: 8/11.

Cersei Lannister, the bitter, scheming scourge of much of the series, bears all the hallmarks of a transactional leader. She sees the Seven Kingdoms in clear terms of order, structure and rigid hierarchy; she is regimented, focused, and efficient to a fault. With Cersei, she sees in terms of transactions — loyalties can be bought, fealty is expected, and respect is demanded. Everything in her world revolves around a system of penalties (often fatal) and rewards (also, often fatal). Odds of survival: 1/25. (She’s dead… or is she?)

Disciplined, decisive, and confident, Daenerys Targaryen fits easily into the mold of an autocratic leader. Despite Jon Snow’s more valid claim to the Iron Throne, Daenerys demands singular authority — all decisions must pass through her, she values control over creativity, and she offers little latitude to those who oppose or fail her. Autocratic leaders are rarely popular within their organizations, something the Dragon Queen was increasingly aware of before she unleashed Drogon on King’s Landing. Odds of survival: 1/3.

Arya Stark, the dynamic, deadly daughter of the late Eddard Stark, is truly a situational leader, where leading tends to be an adaptable responsibility rather than a set model or form. A situational leader is agile, versatile, and adaptive, morphing to the context of the situation. No one character better typifies the situational leader than Arya; a collaborative, supportive member of the organization who isn’t hesitant to take unilateral, decisive action when the situation demands. Odds of survival: 3/1.

No fantasy epic would be complete without a servant leader, and that title falls to Tyrion Lannister. Receptive, persuasive, and engaging, Tyrion suborns his own interests to those of others. He works across the organization to support decision-making, constantly working to find the path that leads to the best outcome for everyone involved. He also drinks more than any other character in the series. Odds of survival: 7/4.

The last character of note is Brandon Stark, who — despite a generally strange demeanor that is more off-putting than not — might best reflect the qualities of a transformational leader. Visionary to a fault, Bran is the one character who leads through his ability to shape culture, thinking and innovation. These are hallmarks of a transformational leader, someone whose ability to inspire and engage drives success in a manner that eludes other leaders. Odds of survival: 9/4.

When the 73rd and final episode of Game of Thrones airs on Sunday night, we’ll finally know who will win the Game of Leaders. Will Cersei rise from the rubble and steal back the Iron Throne? Can Arya stop Daenerys from continuing her rampage on her own forces? Will Jon finally accept his rightful place and unite the Seven Kingdoms? Or will Sansa surprise everyone and take the throne for her own with Tyrion as her king? We’re about to find out, and the answers are going to make for a debate-filled Monday.


Steve Leonard is a lecturer and director of the business school’s Master in Business and Organizational Leadership program. He is a former senior military strategist with 28 years of service in the U.S. Army. Leonard writes a weekly column about “Game of Thrones” for Forces.net and contributed to the book “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” set to be released later this year.