What Game of Thrones Can Teach You About Power Moves
Updated: Oct 16, 2019
This article in an earlier form was published in Inman.
As it airs its final episode on Sunday night, it seems Game of Thrones is on everybody’s mind. Whether you’ve been there since the beginning or binge-watched to get all caught up, you’re no doubt obsessing along with everyone else. Who will survive and, even more important, who will finally take their seat on the Iron Throne?
From its beginning, the show has been all about power -- gaining it, losing it, wielding it -- and the drama that ensues from major power moves. While the show serves as an apt allegory for many things -- politics, culture, religion, and more -- it also offers some object lessons in the use of professional power.
What can you learn from the major players in the GoT universe to inform your next negotiation, marketing strategy, or professional planning? (WARNING: Spoilers for the first seven seasons and much of the eighth season ahead.)
Samwell Tarley: “I read the books and followed the instructions.”
Sam might seem a funny character to start with. After all, he is more known for his powerlessness than his power -- especially at The Wall. But think about what Sam has accomplished: he figured out how to use dragonglass against the Army of the Dead, cured Jorah’s greyscale, rescued Gilly and Baby Sam, and helped inform and enlighten characters all over the kingdom.
Sam knows that serious study and applying the lessons you learn can pay big dividends. In the same way, a new class, a new designation, a new book, or some market analysis might be the key to making your next power move -- and pushing your career forward.
Tyrion: “Death is so final, yet life is full of possibilities.”
Tyrion is constantly fighting against the perception of others. As a Lannister, he’s supposed to be supremely selfish and devoted to furthering his family’s power, yet he ends up as the Hand of Daenerys and his family’s most devastatingly effective opponent. As “The Imp,” he is constantly underestimated and dismissed as a drunken lout and the shame of the family, yet he consistently subverts expectations and uses people’s prejudice against them.
Tyrion’s great gift is his ability to reimagine himself. He’s no soldier, yet he is key to winning the Battle of the Blackwater. He is sentenced to death, then escapes, destroys his betrayers, and stows away on a ship bound for the unknown. He returns as the second in command and most trusted advisor to the Mother of Dragons herself and helps to negotiate the Dragonpit Summit.
Forget what you think you know about your own potential, your business, or your market. Dare to imagine something different, then look for the means to make your vision manifest. You may just find that the limitations you thought were holding you back were really just excuses you were using. Think differently, and the results will follow.
Arya: “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I’m going home.”
Poor Arya. After the devastation of her father’s execution in season one, she has been a prisoner, hostage, servant, beggar, and wanderer. We thrilled when she decided to return to Winterfell, but worried when her suspicions seemed to dampen the joy of her homecoming. Then we cheered again when she joined with Sansa to take revenge on Littlefinger for his many betrayals. Finally, we all collectively gasped when she ended up as the chosen one who defeated the Night King.
How has Arya survived it all? By staying true to her core identity as Arya Stark of Winterfell. Despite the setbacks, Arya understands who she is and where she comes from, which grounds her and gives her the power to survive. True power comes from a firm sense of your own identity, your strength, and your foundations. If you’re struggling in your business, it may be because you need to get real, be authentic, and get back to basics.
Sansa: “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.”
From the first episode, Sansa has been used as a pawn in the power games of others. From her devastating turn as Joffrey’s intended to her marriage to Tyrion to her marriage to Ramsay Bolton, her journey has been a cruel one. However, unlike some others might, Sansa has learned from everyone she has encountered, becoming wise and insightful and growing her power and influence as the Lady of Winterfell.
Unlike many of the other characters, Sansa doesn’t wield power outwardly with a sword or dragon. Her power comes from her razor-sharp insights and the strategies she employs to determine the motives and intentions of others. She is an effective and shrewd negotiator, consolidating power by understanding and outmaneuvering those who fail to recognize her softer power plays.
You may not be the biggest broker in your market, but you can make major moves by knowing and understanding the pain points, needs, and goals of those around you. When you become someone who can make things happen, solve problems, and outflank bad actors, you become an unexpected power player.
Cersei: “Nobody cares what your father once told you.”
Love her or love to hate her, Cersei Lannister is one of the most compelling villains in pop culture. From her steely gaze to her armor-lite wardrobe to her bottomless wine goblet, she is a Disney evil queen come to life.
Cersei’s great strength lies in her ability to keep moving forward no matter what happens to her. Through love and loss, bitter betrayal and sweet victory, Cersei never loses her iron will and determination to come out on top. Even when all seems lost -- imprisoned by the High Sparrow, publicly humiliated, devastated by the loss of those closest to her -- Cersei uses it all as fuel for her climb to the throne.
What are the stories you tell yourself about your own abilities and circumstances? Stop letting self-doubt and the pains of the past limit your present. Wash your face, put on your crown, and get to work. You’ve got things to do.
Jon Snow: “I don’t want them to kneel for me; I want them to fight with me when the time comes.”
Despite the assessment of his beloved Ygritte, it turns out that Jon Snow knows quite a lot. After growing up under the shadow of life as the Bastard of Winterfell, he survived (and was resurrected) to become the King in the North and arguably the best claimant to the Iron Throne.
Jon’s strength (and the cause of many of his downfalls) has consistently been his ability to choose alliance where others chose division. First with the Free Folk, now with Daenerys, Jon’s orientation is always toward unity and the empowerment of those around him. Perhaps because of his outsider status at Winterfell, he always seeks the enfranchisement of those whom others reject, building bridges that make everyone stronger.
Like Jon, you are only as strong as the team you gather. Build your power base through the support staff, mentors, and colleagues who help you do more, go further, and become your best and highest self.
Daenerys: “I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.”
Starting out as a young girl, Daenerys seemingly had no power, no voice, and no ability to write her own story. At that point, she didn’t even have dragons! Now, however, that weak girl is a distant memory. Through the setbacks she has faced and the people she has saved, Daenerys has become a true warrior queen.
Now, her alliance with Jon Snow -- who shares her ability to rescue, unify, and empower others -- brings together the North and South, the Iron Throne and The Wall, offering the best possible chance to finally unify the kingdom -- if they can survive, that is.
From the beginning, Daenerys embraced her role as Khaleesi, creating the foundation of her power with a core group of supporters in the Dothraki caravan. Since then she has continued bringing people to her side and adding titles to her name, becoming the embodiment of power and claiming her throne for herself. Whether you view her as the ultimate warrior or the Mad Queen, you have to admit she gets results.
Knowing who you are and claiming your power is essential for your success. From branding and marketing to negotiation and processes, you don’t get anywhere by playing small. Show up, get to work, and build the business you’ve envisioned. You might not have any dragons, but you’ll find your own unique ways of earning and wielding power as you get in there and put in the effort.