The 'Game of Thrones' Guide to Management

Back for a third season, the HBO series is better than any business book at illuminating corporate power struggles
Courtesy HBO

Are you in a rut? Underappreciated by your peers? Is some immature kid wearing your crown? Whether your aim is to score a bonus, land that corner office, or lead a hostile takeover, there’s much to learn from Game of Thrones, HBO’s sprawling fantasy series, which returns for its third season on March 31.

Based on the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, the show is less swords and sorcery than corporate intrigue of the highest order. The battle for ownership of the Seven Kingdoms is, in other words, a fight for executive control of seven subsidiaries. And the crass, libidinous Tyrion Lannister, played by 4-foot-5 Emmy winner Peter Dinklage, delivers a master class in manipulating friends and influencing people while rising from marginalized party boy to the head of the castle’s army.

In the show’s Season One première, Tyrion sets the tone by explaining this first secret of success: “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not,” he says. “Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” Management consultant Dan Rockwell of the Leadership Freak blog says Tyrion’s self-awareness is a virtue. “Jim Parker, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, always says, ‘Be yourself.’ And Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s, says, ‘If you don’t know yourself, the world pushes you around,’ ” says Rockwell. “In the leadership world, there are so many people pretending that they can do things they can’t—but pretending makes for great stress on people and creates an office culture of anxiety and fakery.”

Instead of being embarrassed by his diminutive stature or sordid past, Tyrion flaunts it. He gets ahead of gossip about a prostitution scandal by proudly admitting every transgression in public, à la Hugh Grant. “I am a vile man. I confess it. My crimes and sins are beyond counting,” he says. “Tyrion sounds very much like Steve Jobs there,” says Melinda Emerson, author of Become Your Own Boss in Twelve Months. “He was never apologetic, even for being tyrannical. Being fully self-possessed is a great asset in business.”

Tyrion’s philosophy is essentially the core of the strength-based leadership movement founded by the late management guru Peter Drucker, “which says a leader should focus on strengths and compensate for weaknesses,” says Rockwell. As Tyrion admits in Season Two: “My brother has his sword, and I have my mind.”

After Tyrion thwarts a mutiny in the Battle of the Blackwater by appealing to his soldiers’ self-interest (“Don’t fight for a king. Don’t fight for his kingdom. … This is your gold [Stannis] steals, your women he rapes”), he’s betrayed by his father and sister and locked in prison. Like some other rough-edged executives, Tyrion’s left with few allies when he needs them most. “Look at Martha Stewart,” Emerson says. “When she was taken down people cheered, because she wasn’t nice. Eventually, that assassin is going to get you. Long term, you need friends. And if you want friends, as I tell my first grader, you must be friendly.” Still, don’t count Tyrion out. Not to spoil the action, but in Season Three he rises again. As he says: “Schemes are like fruit—they require a certain ripening.”