'Game of Thrones': The Business Manual
George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” was always an unusual fantasy series. In many ways, the books — and the wildly successful HBO show it inspired — function as a tactical deconstruction of genre classics like Lord of the Rings. There are no real heroes or villains. Magic is used sparingly, and confusingly. Important characters are famously killed off frequently; indeed, five books into the seven-book cycle, the whole concept of “important characters” seems hazy. (You can already see that forming in the TV show’s third season; the nominally heroic Stark family is dead and scattered, while relatively new additions like the Tyrells keep expanding their power.)
But to me, what really defines Martin’s story is his portrait of power. And not just power in the abstract: He is fascinated by the process of governance. Recall Ned Stark arriving in King’s Landing way back in the first book/season 1. Ned is a typical romantic-fantasy protagonist, a noble man of war: He’s Aragorn, basically, the kind of guy you want on your side to fight an invading army or a dragon. But at the first meeting of the Small Council, he learns that Westeros is facing the greatest villain of all: Tremendous financial debt. The series constantly circles back around to similar seemingly banal matters: Governments running low on money, kings forced to mediate between different factions, laws that have to be followed. A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons comprise a thousand-page-plus portrait of statecraft; coincidentally, this is why some people don’t like A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons. But Martin’s detail-oriented storytelling makes for compelling narrative. In a very concrete sense, Martin uses his different characters to roadmap several very different strategies for success. You know how douchey Wall Street bankers love to read The Art of War? “A Song of Ice and Fire” and Game of Thronesprovide similar metaphorical business models, with intriguing lessons for anyone paying attention.
Take Tywin Lannister. He could be the best manager in the Seven Kingdoms. He lives behind a desk, signing treaties and brokering agreements and choosing the exact right moment to cut out his competitors, fatally or otherwise. But his management style has just one problem: He is utterly unwilling to share his power. That scene from early in this season when he spoke to two of his three children pretty much sums it all up: “You’re marrying Sansa, you’re marrying Loras, and this discussion is closed.”
This management style leaves no room for variables, because he assumes everyone is a cold ambition-bot like himself: He honestly can’t imagine why Tyrion and Cersei don’t want to marry people who are so clearly wrong for them, because he can only conceive of marriage as a financial transaction. So when something unexpected happens — i.e., his non-dwarf son Jaime joins the Kingsguard, robbing Tywin of his preferred heir — Tywin gets in a tizzy. He can’t understand any motivation besides money and power, which is why he is incredibly successful, but also why his management style is doomed to failure in the long-term. And because he is a great micro-manager, who generally refuses to hand off any important responsibilities to subordinates, he has never had to develop the ability to recognize talent. This is why he can’t notice that his son, Tyrion, is a chip off the old block, a tactical mastermind who also has a bonus gift for gab. All he sees is his son’s worst elements. Actually, come to think of it, all he sees in people is their worst elements, because he’s the kind of businessman who preys on humanity’s worst instincts. This is why he’s fabulously wealthy and also why no one likes him.
If you were looking for a modern real-world comparison, you’d want to look at someone like Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch: People who have built empires based around their own cult of personality, empires that have already begun to descend into internecine squabbling. Here’s Tywin’s whole business model summed up in a line:
Tywin’s management style is also egocentric: He prefers to operate in the shadows, behind the King, but he also wants people to KNOW that he’s operating in the shadows. (Compare him to people who actually operate in the shadows, like Littlefinger or the Spider: They prefer being mysterious, while Tywin just wants to be feared.)
Weirdly, the Starks aren’t actually THAT different from the Lannisters. If anything, they’re even more inflexible, with a dangerously outdated sense of moral superiority. The Ned Stark business model — “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword” — might sound humble and noble, but the flip side is a troubling lesson: “You, Stark Child, have the noble duty to pass the ultimate judgment.” This is part of the reason why all the Starks seem to think they’re living in an old-fashioned fantasy, where princesses marry noble kings, and true love conquers all, and your enemies will follow the same code of conduct as you, and it makes any sense at all for a young man who hasn’t seen anything of the world to join the Night’s Watch and basically become an iceberg monk for the rest of his life. They’re all good leaders because they care, but they also care way too much — their caring clouds their judgment. They’re like the family business that refuses to expand and winds up getting swallowed by Wal-Mart.
Or not even Wal-Mart; because the Starks are playing according to a set of rules that no one else actually believes in, they leave themselves open to attacks by people like the Greyjoys. The Greyjoys are, in almost every way that counts, bargain-bin Starks: Like their neighbors to the North, they’re a dour race from a dreary climate. But unlike the Starks, they have no qualms about breaking basic rules of engagement in the service of their ambition. Their house words are “We Do Not Sow,” which means literally, “We don’t plant anything; we let other people plant stuff, and then we steal it.”
Think of The Social Network. The Winklevosses are great big men of noble birth who follow an archaic code of conduct and have all the world’s resources at their disposal. But Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have that code or those resources; he just moves faster than they do. It might sound funny, but the Greyjoys succeed for the same reason: They’re fast, they’re mobile, and they’re never tied down. They’re like a start-up, really. (The only Greyjoy who didn’t get the memo is Theon, raised by the old-fashioned Starks; he takes over Winterfell, a landlocked castle of purely symbolic value. This is sort of the rough equivalent of Google shifting its main business to book printing.)
One of the smartest things Martin did was establish the Lannister-Stark dichotomy and then gradually teach his readers that the best course was somewhere in the middle. The other families have more balanced mindsets. The Tyrells are just as cunning as the Lannisters, but they couch their ambition with great PR. Margaery Tyrell visiting the orphanage is kind of like when an evil oil company purchases a lot of carbon offsets: It’s sort of an empty gesture, but it certainly makes you like that evil oil company more than the other evil oil companies.
Conversely, although the three leading members of House Baratheon appear wildly different – drunken Robert, ambitious religious fanatic Stannis, relatively likable everyguy Renly — they’re all remarkably good talent scouts, surrounding themselves with excellent advisors and soaping up advice even when that advice is diametrically opposed to their own plans. Both Robert and Stannis practiced a Team-of-Rivals mentality with their cabinet: Robert specifically brought his noble friend Ned Stark into the Small Council to provide some bull-in-a-china-shop moral clarity, while Stannis pairs skeptical lowborn Davos Seaworth with zealot priest Melisandre. We knew less about Renly, but we know he tried to court Ned Stark for his coup, and also that he brokered an alliance with the Tyrells (although that was at least half-romantic.)
But if you’re looking at management tips from the world of Westeros, the best example to follow is Daenarys. She empowers all of her citizens/employees, which makes them love her, even though their lives – nomadic, dirty, forever in tents or cramped boats — are actually significantly worse than the partisans of the Stark/Lannister/whatever foreign city she’s invading this week. Unlike the Starks and Lannisters, who live by obtuse old codes that no peasant can possibly relate to, the Khaleesi has a clear goal (conquer Westeros!) and a more abstract but equally inspiring goal (free the slaves!) She has her own cult of personality — mother of dragons! — but she also has the genuine respect of her people because they know she’s been through hell and is definitely someone who understands THEM in a major way.
Basically, she’s like a Silicon Valley start-up hotshot who keeps expanding because she invented one powerful thing (dragons = Facebook) and she continues to inspire all her new employees with a mission statement (“Free the slaves!”=”Don’t be evil.”) Of course, she runs the risk of either A) believing her own hype or B) making concessions to bad people in order to expand her own power. Which, in this metaphor, means tattooing advertisements on her dragons’ skin.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich
Game of Thrones
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series 'A Song of Ice and Fire.'