Teaching the next generation of executives exactly how to lead takes more than academic theory. So business schools around the world have been falling over themselves in recent years to find ways to engage their students on their personal leadership journey. Budding tycoons have consequently found themselves drawing lessons from the works of Shakespeare, from the military, from polar explorers and even, at France’s HEC Paris, from Benedictine monks.
It may come as no surprise therefore that at least one school now offers teaching that draws on what is possibly the biggest cultural phenomenon of the decade — the epic Game of Thrones.
Although they might hesitate to admit it publicly, I suspect that there is many a business leader who, after a testing day at the office, might wish they could deal with difficult clients, employees, partners or suppliers as efficiently as the terrifying Cersei Lannister does for anyone who gets in her way. However, according to Trond Kjaerstad, who lectures at BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo there is more to be learned from the works of George R.R. Martin than simply how to crush all who oppose you.
Winter is coming
Norway’s leading business schools is so keen on Game of Thrones that they have built their latest student recruitment campaign around it. If you want to learn how to handle unruly White Walkers then go north.
“What’s really interesting about watching Game of Thrones, is how many parallels you can spot with ‘real life’ leadership, both present and past,” he says. “Daenerys Targeryen, for example, has many characteristics of England’s Queen Elizabeth the First, surrounding herself with strong helpers and advisors to build a team that would accomplish much more than she could have on her own. Theresa May is worryingly like Robb Stark, starting off very promising but then falling prey to increasingly bad choices. Let’s just hope she doesn’t decide to attend any weddings in the near future.”
Rest assured Trond, the only thing on Theresa’s mind is divorce. But that may prove to be another massacre.
“The eternal survivor, Jon Snow, has elements of a Macron or an early Obama about him,” says Kjaerstad. “ He is the underdog with the promise of turning things around and making a real impact. And, if you want to find a parallel for the leader that seems to still have everyone puzzled, namely Donald Trump, then for me it would be Euron Greyjoy – not the most empathetic character in the story but nevertheless direct, tough and usually successful.”
I guess they also share a fondness for locker room talk.
But, given Kjaerstad’s professional focus on what we, the followers, look for in our leaders, and our apparent clarity on what ‘good’ leadership looks like, who does he think presents the best model in a GOT scenario so tangled and chaotic that it makes the world of business look like an afternoon at Disneyland?
“If you accept the approach to leadership that most academics advocate these days – non-egocentric, co-operative, consensual – then it would have to be Tyrion Lannister. Although seemingly not leadership material at all when we first meet him – drunken, dissipated and cowardly – he just gets better and better as the narrative progresses, learning and developing from every crisis that he finds himself plunged into.
By the latest series he’s ticking so many of the right boxes, displaying both realism and pragmatism, bringing people together despite their very deep-rooted differences and providing well-reasoned and perceptive advice accompanied by some well-needed humor. The only problem is that he very likely wouldn’t want the top job because he’s perceptive enough to see that it’s not the glittering prize it promises to be!”
So does Game of Thrones offer an MBA shortcut? Kjaerstad’s main point is not simply to learn how to be an effective manager by taking extensive notes while watching all 67 episodes that the series has clocked up so far.
“I think that anyone who is serious about management and leadership needs to embrace the fact that because it’s such a complex subject you can never stop learning,” he says. “And you don’t just learn from academic text-books or the how-to guides that fill up airport bookshop shelves, you learn from everything that goes on around you. Consequently I’d really urge any serious manager not to lock themselves into their own subject, but to read as widely as possible, to watch good films and TV shows, to travel, to talk, to exchange ideas, in short to face outwards and always keep an open mind.
Because you never know when or where you are going to come across that great idea which is going to make you even better than you are today.”
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