What can you learn about Governance and Risk Management from Game of Thrones?

If you’re not a total recluse, you might have heard about this show called Game of Thrones, a.k.a. building up loyal lovable characters over complex, multi-year story arcs only to have them brutally slaughtered, burned, or decapitated without any warning.

Sound familiar to your current surroundings?

I’m sure many of you have experienced something like this at least in the figurative sense in their workplace and this is not really surprising. If you look at Game of Thrones and peek a little bit between the lines of dragons, magic, prostitution, and death, I would strongly argue that it is at its heart a story about politics, loyalty, and human interactions in complex organisations (i.e. the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros).

There are a number of major characters with mutually incompatible dominance objectives (sit on the Iron Throne), while most other people in the GoT world are simply trying to survive and maintain some degree of autonomy. In this way, it reminds me a lot of the current research on what actually motivates people:


Different Approaches to Governance and Risk Management

Let’s compare some GoT characters and analyze their approach to governance and risk management. We shall evaluate also the characters performance so far in the story arc (Beware of spoilers, if you have not watched the show but are still planning to do so. And don’t worry, I’m not spoilering Season 6):

Eddard “Ned” Stark

Lord of Winterfell, Lord Paramount and Warden of the North, Hand of the King.

  • Objectives: Protect the North and his family

  • Strengths: Strong moral attitudes, accomplished warrior, greatsword forged from valyrian steel (Ice)

  • Weaknesses: Does not keep the big picture in view, too trusting of people

  • Leadership and Governance style: Strong bonds with family, allies and House Stark bannermen via mutually demonstrated loyalty. Follows the rules but does not adapt them to changing circumstances (e.g. the Old Gods)

  • Risk appetite: Willing to take great personal risks, but very protective of his family

  • Risk mitigation strategy: Try to expose adversaries’ secrets and thereby bring back moral and desired behavior

  • Performance: Beheaded by his own greatsword at the order of someone more powerful than him at the time


Jon Snow

Bastard son of Ned Stark, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Wildling Lover

  • Objectives: Protect the Wall

  • Strengths: Strong moral attitudes, Valyrian steel sword (Longclaw), pet direwolf

  • Weaknesses: Inexperienced, has to defend a gigantic perimeter with only enough manpower to watch <1% of it, liking for sassy wildling girls

  • Leadership and Governance style: Did not expect to become the leader and is only starting to fill out this role and solidifying his authority

  • Risk appetite: Willing to put down his life for the Realms of Men and his brothers

  • Risk mitigation: Hide behind a giant perimeter

  • Performance: Succumbs to insider threat attackers, Still knows nuthin


Daenerys Targaryen

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

  • Objectives: Reclaim the Iron Throne

  • Strengths: Fierce loyalty of her followers, access to dragons, resistant to fire

  • Weaknesses: A lot of enemies, too trusting of those surrounding her

  • Leadership and Governance style: Free slaves, make people love her, intimidate all others with dragons

  • Risk appetite: Was high, when she had basically no land and no army, i.e. nothing to lose. Now? not so much anymore

  • Risk mitigation: Surround yourself with a loyal army of ex-slaves and hungry dragons

  • Performance: Solidifying her position but nowhere near where she actually wants to be


Joffrey Baratheon

Lord of the Seven Kingdoms

  • Objectives: Enjoy his position of power while torturing and degrading as many people as possible

  • Strengths: Protective mother who watches out for him, Kingsguard

  • Weaknesses: Doesn’t really have much power outside of his capital city, weak mandate (doubtful legitimacy of his claim for the throne with his being the bastard son of his mother and his uncle)

  • Leadership and Governance style: Torture, beheadings, execute prostitutes with crossbows for fun

  • Risk appetite: Claims high risk appetite, but coward in reality

  • Risk mitigation: Keep Kingsguard closely

  • Performance: Poisoned to death at his own wedding


Cersei Lannister

Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms

  • Objectives: Protect her children and keep power for her family

  • Strengths: Very adept at playing the politics game

  • Weaknesses: Overconfident in her abilities to keep all threads together

  • Leadership and Governance style: Claim executive power without having a real mandate. Repeat until the apparatus follows by pure habit

  • Risk appetite: very low

  • Risk mitigation: Buy allegiance with gold

  • Performance: currently still alive but forced to walk naked through an angry mob


Stannis Baratheon

Lord of Dragonstone

  • Objectives: Claim the Iron Throne

  • Strengths: Strong military leader, carries favour with the Lord of Light (for a while)

  • Weaknesses: Easily loses perspective, puts too much faith in red-haired women, heavily in debt at the Iron Bank of Braavos

  • Leadership and Governance style: Gather a strong army and use black magic to get rid of inconvenient family members

  • Risk appetite: very high, as he has only one goal and wants to achieve it at any cost

  • Risk mitigation: black magic

  • Performance: Crushing defeat after promising advances in the beginning, sacrificed everything for his goal (no cost-benefit analysis performed), executed by another individual with a single-minded goal and a valyrian steel sword


Petyr Baelish

Littlefinger, Master of Coin (a type of CFO in the GoT world)

  • Objectives: Solidify and grow his position to gain as much personal autonomy as possible, survive as comfortable as possible while doing the beforehand

  • Strengths: resourceful, smart, knows how to manipulate people into doing his bidding, operates a well frequented brothel

  • Weaknesses: physically unimposing, no armies or lands

  • Leadership and Governance style: avoids appearance of any kind of actual leadership position, while pulling the strings from behind the scenes and maneuvering with soft power skills

  • Risk appetite: very low

  • Risk mitigation: Appear unassuming and not dangerous to the interests of other more hard power forces in the seven kingdoms

  • Performance: Makes and breaks kings, continues to flourish


Mance Rayder

King-Beyond-The-Wall, Night’s Watch deserter

  • Objectives: Bring the free folk to safety to the south-side of the wall, crush all opposing forces on the way

  • Strengths: Gathers a wilding army of 100k+ members, access to giants

  • Weaknesses: only loose allegiance of his army, enemies everywhere, inferior technology compared to the seven kingdoms, White Walkers pushing down from the north

  • Leadership and Governance style: kind of democratically elected, so has to please his constituents

  • Risk appetite: Measured, i.e. accepts one risk (war against the Night’s Watch) to mitigate greater risk (White Walkers)

  • Risk mitigation: Complex strategy involving multiple vectors of attack

  • Performance: Crushed by superior military forces, captured and then burned at the stake for refusing to bend the knee



Master of Whisperers

  • Objectives: promote a just and appropriate leader to the Iron Throne, survive while doing so

  • Strengths: has spies everywhere, underestimated, not perceived as danger, people owe him

  • Weaknesses: physically unassuming, no armies or lands or titles

  • Leadership and Governance style: 100% soft power and mutual favours

  • Risk appetite: extremely low, also due to traumatic childhood experiences

  • Risk mitigation: fly below the radar while having extremely good visibility on risk situation through extensive spy network

  • Performance: Still alive, identified promising candidate for objective

Lessons learned from successful vs. unsuccessful risk strategies

  • People who have staying alive as a core objective balanced with some other long-term goal are more successful overall
  • Hard Power wins in the short term, but carries very high risk of own death
  • Soft Power yields more sustainable results, but they might not be recognised by the general population
  • Visibility and transparency of risk state promotes achievement of objectives and staying alive
  • Possession of valyrian steel swords (i.e. strong, powerful and expensive tools) creates results in the mid-term but significantly increases risk of own death
  • Dragons beat pretty much everything but are hard to control and require strong chains
  • Titles and awards mean nothing, as everyone just claims them and they’re not helpful at all. Instead, risk is drawn to them like insects to light
  • Magic (i.e. supposed silver bullet solutions) appear very powerful but often require unforeseen sacrifices, while showing inconsistent performance at the same time
  • Throwing money at problems makes them go away for a while, but the Iron Bank will always have its due
  • Superior technology, tactics and unit cohesion (“alynement” anyone?)  will crush larger numbers and resource spending
  • Staying under the radar and not exposing yourself is a successful strategy for staying alive, but it takes much longer and complicated actions to come close to one’s non-survival related goals
  • Gaining strong loyalty from followers by showing moral behavior is generally advantageous but carries risk of false allegiance unraveling at inopportune moments (say, during weddings)

Image credit: flickr / TaylorHerring


Stefan Sulistyo

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