by Dan Tynan

8 IT leadership lessons from ‘Game of Thrones’

Apr 15, 201915 mins
CareersCIOIT Leadership

HBO's epic swords and sorcery series is less fictional than you might think. Here's how to survive and thrive as an IT leader despite the political intrigue and power struggles that come with the job.

game of throwns excalibur sword royalty battle leadership victory
Credit: Fergregory / Getty Images

Treachery, deceit, political intrigue, power struggles — these are some of the enduring themes of Game of Thrones, but for many of us it’s just another day at the office. The characters and situations depicted in HBO’s epic series are not entirely unlike those you encounter at work every day, save for the armor, swords, and fire-breathing reptiles.

And, as with any mythology in action, there are lessons to be learned. How do you deal with a tyrannical CEO or a talented but headstrong employee? Is it possible to successfully navigate office politics without having your reputation sullied or your back stabbed? What can you do when your boss or a key colleague lacks all human emotions save for anger?

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Game of Thrones lays bare these and other valuable lessons in leadership, including the importance of finding a savvy adviser who can steer you away from disastrous decisions, fostering the shy geek who’s likely to find solutions for your company’s most intractable problems, and recognizing the need to pay more attention to the people in the trenches who keep warning you that bad things are about to happen.

Here are eight invaluable lessons any IT leader should be sure to take away from Game of Thrones.

1. Navigate the tyrannical boss

He’s spoiled, arrogant, petulant, and cruel. He treats everyone around him as peasants and delights in tormenting those who oppose him. But he can be charming in public, and he’s backed by a powerful chairman, making him virtually untouchable.

Joffrey Baratheon, teenage enfant terrible and heir to the Iron Throne, would not be entirely out of place as CEO at a tech company. How do you deal with a tyrant at the top, short of having him poisoned at his own wedding?

When confronted by a Joffrey, most people just climb aboard a fast ship and cross the Narrow Sea as quickly as they can, says Elizabeth Becker, technology recruiter for a major US bank.

“It’s common knowledge that people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad bosses,” she says. “In tech, anyone who has a boss they don’t like can usually get multiple offers from any number of companies.”

Fortunately, most leaders with tyrannical tendencies are not complete narcissistic psychopaths like Joffrey, says Bruce Craven, an associate professor at Columbia Business School and author of Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones. They’re more like his grandfather Tywin Lannister, a pragmatic autocrat who’s more interested in wielding power and maintaining his legacy than impaling people with crossbows. This type of leader exemplifies self-control, is less-reactive and offers risks and opportunities, says Craven.

“If it’s a tyrannical leader like Joffrey, get out of there,” he adds. “If it’s a tyrannical leader like Tywin, and you can figure out what he cares about, you might choose to offer clarity on how you’re going to help him reach his goals. But when we work for people who don’t share our moral values, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position. Ideally you find a leader who’s not a tyrant and functions with a larger sense of purpose.”

2. Harness the brilliant rebel

Everyone agrees she’s extraordinary. Not many citizens of Westeros could emerge unscathed from a flaming funeral pyre with three baby dragons in her arms, then proceed to free the people of Slaver’s Bay, win the loyalty of the Unsullied, and unite the wild Dothraki horsemen — all before turning 18.

But while undeniably impressive, Daenerys Targaryen is also arrogant, stubborn, and reluctant to accept direction or criticism. Anyone brave enough to confront her is likely to get flamed (literally).

She’s the hotshot coder or UX designer on your team that top management adores but everyone else is quite tired of. Or she’s the entrepreneurial genius with a million ideas, all of them right.

“Targaryen employees have the intrinsic belief that they’re talented, correct, and will come out on top,” says Erica Denner, head of people and culture for Kazoo, a people management solution. “When they’re right, they’re right, but when it comes to business, stakeholders need more than confidence to guide major company decisions.”

The best way to handle talented yet headstrong people is to start by acknowledging all the things they do well, suggests Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. Then identify what this person is trying to accomplish — like uniting all the kingdoms under her rule, or completely rewriting the user interface for the third time — and how a more diplomatic approach may help her achieve that.

“You don’t want to get into a battle with someone that scary and powerful because you’re going to lose,” says Gallo. “You need to make that person feel like you’re on the same page, fighting the same battle against the same enemies. Once you have her ear, you can suggest that playing nice with others may actually help her achieve those goals.”

In other words, convince her that roasting people with dragons may get results, but not necessarily the ones she wants, Gallo adds.

3. Guard against the office gossip

He is the keeper of secrets. He knows everything because he has spies everywhere, yet he prefers to linger on the periphery, selectively funneling data to the powers that be. He lurks in the shadows, manipulating the flow of information to keep his friends loyal and his enemies off balance.

Your office gossip might not be quite as duplicitous as Lord Varys (aka the Master of Whisperers), but could be equally damaging. A study by researchers at the UK’s University of Salford found that people who share workplace scuttlebutt are more cynical about their jobs and less productive overall.

Yet gossip can be a positive thing if people use it to gather and disseminate important information, says Gallo. And ultimately, Lord Varys is trying to use his powers to unite the seven kingdoms under a benevolent (or at least marginally less psychotic) ruler.

But the negative aspects come when people use gossip to undermine or ostracize their colleagues. And management studies show that gossip inevitably reflects poorly on the person sharing the information.

“People think sharing secrets makes them look powerful, but it ends up making them look petty,” she says. “They’re seen as less trustworthy, less effective at their jobs, and less likely to get promotions or raises. Some people are incorrigible gossips and just can’t help themselves, but there’s no reason you have to participate in it. You’re not in middle school anymore, even if sometimes feels that way.”

4. Beware the backstabbing colleague

He’s your closest ally until he’s gotten what he needs from you. Then you’ll spend the rest of your time trying to remove that Valyrian steel dagger from between your shoulder blades.

Everyone has probably run into a Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) at some point in their careers. He’ll get you to confide in him, encourage you to speak your mind in a meeting, and then turn on you in front of the boss.

One way to identify potential Littlefingers is to look at who their other friends are, advises Craven. If they appear to be building a relationship with you and no one else, that’s a sign to steer clear.

The backstabbing colleague is one of the more challenging personality types to deal with, says Gallo, because he is often rewarded for his treachery with greater power. You need to find other co-workers who’ve got your back, and stand up to him when he betrays you.

“You want to bind together with other people in the community and label this behavior,” she says. “But you need to have strong alliances, because as soon as you turn on him he will find someone else to align with.”

It’s possible to have a functional working relationship with people like this, says Craven, provided you never confide in them.

“I’ve worked with people like Littlefinger,” he says. “If you have a sense of what they’re trying to achieve, you can work with them toward a mutual goal, so long as you’re aware they’re not trustworthy and you’re careful with what you share about yourself. But it’s a dangerous game that can damage your reputation, so play it with caution.”

5. Foster hidden talent

Bookish and awkward, smart but lacking in self-confidence, Samwell Tarley ultimately provides what the House of Stark needs more than anything — information on how to defeat their ghostly enemies. Surrounded by ferocious warriors, only mild-mannered Tarley manages to actually kill a White Walker.

“Nearly all of information technology is composed of Samwell Tarlys,” says Mike Meikle, CEO of secureHIM, a cybersecurity consulting firm. “Without their efforts most companies would fall apart at the seams.”

Drawing these people out of their comfortable anonymity isn’t easy, he admits. But a good way to start is to give them opportunities to showcase their talents.

“Make them team leader, commission them to create proofs of concept to show executives, or appoint them IT’s representative on various committees and they can quickly rise to the occasion,” he says. “Just keep them away from the Joffreys, Lord Varys’s, and Littlefingers. They are not savvy enough in the ways of corporate politics to survive those encounters.” 

6. Beware the transactional leadership trap

As daughter of Tywin and mother of Joffrey, Cersei’s sole mission is to keep House Lannister in power, whatever it takes. Cool, competent, and ruthless, she is the ultimate transactional business leader. When it comes to leaning in, Sheryl Sandberg has got nothing on Cersei.

With virtually no relationship skills, Cersei doesn’t inspire loyalty in her followers, but she’s more than willing to pay for loyalty when she needs it, says Craven. Thus she makes deals with the Iron Bank of Braavos to fund her bankrupt kingdom and hires mercenaries from Essos to fight her wars.

“Cersei has a high IQ but a low EQ [emotional quotient],” he says. “She’s able to use her power to satisfy herself, but she’s not able to build relationships with people who would sacrifice themselves for her, unless she was giving them something. She’s learned from her father that power is a commodity that can’t be shared. She expects to be betrayed, so she wants to do the betraying first.”

But transactional leaders like Cersei are so focused on solving their immediate problems that they often fail to recognize larger threats looming on the horizon — whether it’s an army of the undead advancing on their northern border or shifting technology paradigms that could render their companies irrelevant.

“Cersei’s approach is ‘First I’ve got to kill everyone who threatens me, and then I’ll think about these other things,'” Craven says. “When we find ourselves reporting to leaders with dangerous approaches like this, we must operate with EQ, pay close attention to context in situations that could lead to our demise, and keep learning.”

7. Line up a capable lieutenant

He’s the smartest guy in the room that everyone overlooks (literally). At first considered a drunk and a fool, he reveals himself as a brilliant strategic thinker and an expert at managing up.

Having a trusted advisor like Tyrion Lannister as second-in-command is a smart move for CIOs or any other top executive, but it needs to be the right fit.

After Tyrion confronted Joffrey once too often (and was tried for his murder), he escaped death by fleeing across the Narrow Sea. There he found Daenerys Targaryen, an inexperienced leader who had grand ambitions but needed guidance.

“It’s like Snapchat,” says Becker. “Somebody starts a company and they’re very successful, but they don’t know how to be a CEO. That’s where someone like Tyrion steps in.”

It was not an immediate match. Tyrion first had to gain her trust, and he made serious mistakes along the way. But he listened to her ideas and was able to translate her vision into an actionable plan.

Tyrion continually survives because he’s really good at incident management, says Matt Cox, senior director of technical operations at Samanage, an ITSM solutions provider.

“Escaping the Battle of Blackwater, the Stone Men, the Sons of the Harpy, and his own trial all disrupted Tyrion’s daily life, but he found ways to manage them — like selecting Bronn as his champion and later his bodyguard,” says Cox. “Likewise, organizations need to invest in incident management to manage unexpected challenges and limit future obstacles.”

People like Tyrion are rarely allowed to enter the C-suite because they don’t look the part and they lack powerful patrons, says Meikle, but smart companies will always give them a seat at the table.

8. Listen to the squeaky wheel

Stop us if you’ve heard this one, but: Winter is coming.

Eddard (Ned) Stark tried to warn the seven kingdoms to prepare for dark times ahead. But the weather was still glorious, and people were too busy fighting over the Iron Throne to worry about the White Walkers.

“Every cybersecurity professional is Ned Stark,” says Meikle. “They’re always issuing grave warnings of impending doom, but they’re rarely heeded until the Dragon is at the door. Also, like actor Sean Bean, most infosec pros do have beards.”

Still, the Chicken Little act can get a little tiresome, admits Gallo.

“One of the reasons people like Ned get ignored is that they’re saying the same thing over and over,” she says. “When you do that, people stop listening.”

If you’re the messenger, you may need to consider other perspectives (maybe winter won’t be as bad as you fear) or provide data to back up your claims, says Meikle.

And if you’re his manager, you need to acknowledge the warning and move beyond it to a serious discussion.

“You need to say, ‘I know Ned says this all the time, but what if he’s right?'” Gallo says. “If winter’s coming, what should we do differently? If winter’s not coming, what should we do? Otherwise, people choose sides, and whoever has the most power wins that conversation.”

Of course, in the end Ned lost his head, the Wall was breached, and, well, we don’t know what happens next. You’ll have to tune in to find out.

But trust us: Your own winter is probably coming. Ignore it at your peril.

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