Is Your Organization a Game of Thrones?

September 14, 2017

Is Your Organization a Game of Thrones?

Deceit or honor? How does your organization play the game? This is among the fundamental questions being explored in the extraordinary series Game of Thrones. In the war for power over the Seven Kingdoms, the cast of characters leverage all the strategic tools available to them. They do their best to outthink, outmaneuver, and outplay their competitors. They look for and take advantage of vulnerabilities in their competition while seeking to expand their influence and power. And those who don’t play the game using moves and countermoves do so at their own peril.

While the stakes aren’t quite as high in the workplace, our leaders have similar choices to make regarding how they play the game. We can gain understanding of an organization’s playbook by analyzing its business conduct and ethics policies, mission statement, values, annual reports, talent choices, org structure and decision making. They offer us the insights to understand if they drive strategy through deceit, honor or pragmatism.

So, how does your organization play the game?


Strategic Deceit

Let’s face it. Some corporate cultures are cutthroat. Around any corner, you may find a Cersei Lannister and a Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish attempting to manipulate you and play you for a fool. They anticipate every conceivable play by their competitors, work their strengths, and exploit others’ weaknesses and endure no guilt for the devious moves they make. They are motiveated by self-interest, nothing more. It’s every woman for herself, and let the strongest prevail. They are master strategists whose primary tool is deceit.


Consider these questions to determine if your stated and unstated organizational culture thrives on deceit.

  1. Do your leaders surround themselves with sycophants?
  2. Are mistakes acknowledged and owned?
  3. Can individuals recover from a failure?
  4. Is your org chart a reflection of the leader’s loyal club?  Are decisions for promotion and plum job assignments distributed to those in the inner circle?
  5. Does your organization view long, tenured leaders as “survivors”? Are they like Lord Varys and know where the bodies are buried?
  6. Do decisions stick? Does your culture require pre-meetings to align allies and then unravel after agreement due to the influence of an individual?
  7. Is it common for deadlines to pass without results?
  8. Do 360 feedback results get trashed when the results for a favored leader don’t come out favorable?
  9. Do results, even when achieved through questionable means, still get celebrated and rewarded?
  10. Are “passive aggressive” comments to and about each other accepted as politically preferable to candor?

Many organizations want to be defined by just behaviors and honorable methods as they pursue their business strategy.

If the answers are yes to any of these questions, then your company culture may be a bit like King’s Landing. Perhaps your organization believes only the sly can or should survive in a highly competitive world. Perhaps you think this gives your company its edge in a fierce market place. Or, maybe you think this causes everyone to play the game with a ferocity that leads to greater success. While we don’t know what will become of Cersei, we do know what happened to Baelish. (As a reminder, he was outplayed by his victim.) If you play by “Cersian” strategic rules, then you have to be prepared for the possibility that you might just get outplayed.


Strategic Honor

What’s the alternative? Many organizations want to be defined by just behaviors and honorable methods as they pursue their business strategy. They want to compete in a way that respects their values without compromise. Brienne of Tarth lives a principle centered life and, similar to Jon Snow, is willing to die to honor her word. What would an organization be like if everyone were true to their word?  What kind of results might they deliver if they only made promises they intended to keep and did everything in their power to fulfill their commitments? How would Wall Street respond?


Why do so many companies go to the trouble of defining aspirational cultural values and then fail to live them?  If you overcommit what you can deliver, isn’t that dishonorable? If you communicate a strategy and then change course without notice, isn’t that lying? If you advertise a promotion and then tell the customer to read the fine print, aren’t you misleading others and therefore being a phony? Jon Snow and Brienne don’t conduct themselves in the fine print. They are willing to die (and have in Jon’s case) to be honorable. Is driving strategy with honor just too difficult?

An organization monopolized by those who lie for sport and view manipulation as a survival skill aren’t likely to create a loyal, engaged, and high-performing team for long. 

Strategic Pragmatism

If it’s too difficult to be honorable and too dangerous and despicable to be a deceitful operator, then what can you choose? Daenerys, the Mother of Dragons, seems to operate in that middle spacea Morgenthau Realist who recognizes that politics is governed by conflict and the pursuit of power. She accepts the world for what it is while also pursuing a strategy of shaping the world it into what she wants it to be. She keeps her word to those she leads and will take decisive action when she believes such a move is warranted. What’s the line between her and Jon Snow (not meant to be a joke about her tangle with her nephew) and her and Cersei? 

It’s fine to be sure. She has the capacity to unleash hell on Westeros, but instead aspires to unite the Seven Kingdoms with a common set of values. When she forged the alliance with Yara of the Ironborn, she made it clear they will no longer "reave, rove, raid, or rape." And, when the Tarly’s were unwilling to take the knee and accept her as their queen, the penalty was death by Dragon. Cersei, now alone in the Red Keep with her Meister and Sir Gregor Clegane, has only her power to sustain her. She trusts no one, cares for no one and serves no one.

An organization monopolized by those who lie for sport and view manipulation as a survival skill aren’t likely to create a loyal, engaged, and high-performing team for long. 


In Game of Thrones, honor without strategy can lead to death. Strategy without honor can lead to isolated and unsustainable power. Strategy with honor is the path to greatness.

Strategy then, is the pursuit of plays that anticipate and counteract the effects of your competition. It is making calculated moves to acquire and secure your advantage without compromising your principles. I don’t know about you, but I’m on Team Daenerys. I would trust her to make the tough calls, to use her extraordinary power without abuse, and to honor her commitments 

It would be nice if our own leaders did as much.

The Authors: 

Sharon Margules is a leadership development consultant and executive coach with over 20 years in talent development. She works with founders who are exploring the changes they need to make to keep pace with their scaling organizations. She can be reached at