Dragon’s den: what Game of Thrones can teach you about business

It’s been described as ‘the biggest series on earth’ and Game of Thrones has now returned for its penultimate season.

But are there finance lessons that businesses can take from GoT? “Game of Thrones clearly illustrates the role of power and the potential corrupting effect of asset ownership,” says Tim Cummins, CEO of IACCM. “The shifting alliances and client/servant relationships are an unfortunate reflection of business behaviour at its worst.”

Details of the seventh series are shrouded in secrecy, but it appears that one of the plot strands will focus on Cersei Lannister’s struggles to hold on to the Iron Throne as Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons try to reclaim her family’s kingdom in Westeros. For Cummins, the land grab battles echo the way that major corporates attempt to achieve dominance through mergers and acquisitions. “In GoT, the drive to maximise the ownership of territory is the equivalent of the drive in business for global presence/domination. In both cases, trust and loyalty are undermined.”

GoT demonstrates how big business, allowed to dominate without any regulation, leads to huge inequalities and a serf-like relationship between worker and employer. “We see little of ‘the common person’ in GoT,” says Cummins. “They are largely disposable commodities, except when whipped into a form of ‘alternative truth’, driven by religious fervour.” Such conflicts “are apparently endemic to our world and seem to arise in periods where the levels of inequality in wealth and well-being become particularly visible.”

Leadership lessons

There are several prototypes of stereotypical finance leaders in GoT – can we learn from them how not to do business? “Someone like Cersei is literally trying to build an empire, and this character type comes up a lot in business,” says Lesley Baker, Owner of Lambda Mediation. “Do you go down her route of trying to eliminate all opposition by undercutting them, or do you try to collaborate?”

For Baker, GoT shows the advantages of working together. “There are a couple of examples where houses have got together to defeat a common enemy. Stannis joined with Jon Snow to defeat an even bigger problem. A company you might see as competition can become an ally if a third company that’s even bigger comes along.”

Similarly, Baker says, “even very scheming people like the Eunuch and Tyrion stand together to defeat others.” The lesson is that for ambitious leaders, “trying to knock out all the competition means that you end up with no allies and will ultimately lose.”

This theme of collaboration is central to Baker’s work as a mediator. “Game of Thrones seen as a whole is what happens if you don’t mediate. If you remain in conflict then it escalates and everyone ends up dead (in the series) or worse off than they were before (in real life).” Resolving conflict by talking to opponents or rivals at an early stage “would avoid a lot of the trouble we see in GoT.”

No man (or woman or dragon) is an island

Successful management involves having good people skills and being able to empathise with your employees. But Game of Thrones, in contrast, shows how sociopaths can rise to positions of power. “Take Littlefinger, who appears to have empathy but doesn’t really; everything he does is a means to an end,” Baker says. “Or Roose Bolton. These people isolate themselves and can never see the value anyone else can offer them.”

We see this a lot in finance roles “when people are very good at their jobs, but who have no management experience, get promoted into senior roles. Suddenly you end up with conflict – they’ve been put in charge seemingly on merit, but have no people skills. They cannot offer constructive criticism, and what they say comes across as destructive.” This leads to a downwards spiral, Baker argues. “The workforce think the boss is a bully, and the boss thinks the workforce are incompetent.”

What happens then can be disastrous – in one GoT episode, “the workforce are regarded as slaves and Daenerys arrives to and free them. If a competitor offers something different to suppressed workforces, they will rise up against you.”

Seat of power

Can we take any positive finance strategies away from Game of Thrones? Cato Syversen is CEO of Creditsafe, a leading provider of company credit reports. “We work with competitors for common cost savings, or to do strategic selling of each others’ products,” he says. “This kind of co-operation is invaluable. You can see a similar thing going on in GoT, where alliances are changing all the time. If you’re a disruptor who wants to take on the giants, it can make a lot of sense to co-operate with smaller players.”

Syversen also raises a glass to Tyrion Lannister. “You can broker many a deal and alliance over a glass of wine. A lot of business gets done by being oiled at the agreement stage with alcohol. Sharing potential ideas in this way is an excellent way to seal deals.” And despite acknowledging there can be successful psychopaths in business, Syversen takes a conciliatory view. “There’s a book called The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success. There’s much that the disruptive company can learn from this, Syversen says. “Coming up with surprises is how you get your staff engaged – and surprising your customers is key to being successful in the marketplace.”

Game of Thrones – top tips for business

  • Make senior appointments carefully. “There has to be give and take,” says Lesley Baker. “If your boss is a sociopath and can’t manage people, the company needs to hire someone who is a people person.”
  • Be collaborative. Attempting to slay all the competition has been the downfall of many a large company. GoT shows that working together strategically can defeat a larger enemy.
  • Don’t let big business go unchecked. GoT is what happens when markets are completely unregulated. “The financial measurements used in business inevitably impact individual behaviour, often challenging a sense of fairness or balance,” says Tim Cummins.
  • Don’t let things escalate. “Try to communicate, rather than decapitating your enemies,” Lesley Baker suggests.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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