“If you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” so Cersei told Ned Stark way back in season 1. Since then we have seen seven more seasons come and go, and we haven’t seen a great deal of winning. Many have been on top, but most have fallen (or jumped, sorry Tommen), and we’ve had a chance to look at many approaches to leadership in Westeros.
In this article I’m going to look back at the players of the game at the start of season eight, analyse what makes them the leaders they are, and try to decide who would have made the best leader to sit atop the Iron Throne.
Oh! And beware, for this article is dark and full of spoilers, all the way up to the penultimate episode of the show, The Bells. This is your SPOILER ALERT!
Most of the Kings we’ve seen sit the Iron Throne have been shockingly bad leaders. The Mad King, Aerys Targaryen’s policy to “burn them all” was at least inclusive and non-partisan but set a pretty low bar to beat. Despite this, his successors weren’t shining beacons of leadership either. Robert Baratheon was content to let his Small Council rule if he could go hunting and run up the national debt hosting elaborate tournaments. Joffrey Baratheon was able to bring most of the kingdom together, at least insofar as agreeing it would be better if he died, and Tommen Baratheon spent his brief reign looking for people to cede his power to, including the religious zealot, the High Sparrow. Shame.
Most of the better leaders we saw died without ever sitting on the Throne. Robb Stark was declared King of the North, true, and his success as a general was remarkable; but his one selfish act, choosing love over political expediency, sealed his fate. Tywin Lannister was a clever and talented leader, but even choosing to remain the power behind the throne didn’t save him from his own gruesome death. Mance Rayder, King Beyond the Wall, couldn’t care less about the Iron Throne; still died. Stannis Baratheonwanted the Throne but seemed to not really understand how winters work, which proved a problem. And that brings us full circle to burning people again (not for the last time).
Players in the final season
As I write this, the notes of the penultimate episode, The Bells, are still ringing in my ears, and there are very few players left in the game to take us into the big finale. But I want to look back to the start of this season. Who was still in the game then, who could have ended up on the Iron Throne if their plot armour had lasted just a little longer?
The Night King
Excuse me a moment while I briefly remember I’m writing a blog post for The Shortcut, whose mission statement is all about accelerating people into startups. As a startup entrepreneur, the Night King has a lot going for him. He started small with some investment from the Children of the Forest, but since then has been able to grow his organisation year-on-year in a reliable, repeatable manner. He is great at recruitment, but despite the size of his organisation he has managed to maintain a flat management structure while still keeping his people focussed on success; very goal-oriented. That sort of culture comes from the top.
Pair this with his demonstrated talent for planning and his ability to bide his time and choose his moment — the chains needed to pull the dragon Viserion from the lake weren’t there by accident — and the Night King has a lot going for him. We don’t see it happen in the show, but we are told he is also a strong negotiator: his last foray south ended in a compromise deal, and his deal with Craster for babies, while icky, worked for both parties. Plus, he’s artistic. Having the release of making artful if creepy spirals wherever he goes would really help him stave off burnout.
If you can get past the whole undead, seeking of eternal winter, death to the history of the world vibe, I think Westeros could do worse than endorsing the Night King.
He’s got the bloodline! He’s got the blacksmithing! He’s got mad rowing skills! Given his run back to the Wall at the end of season seven, he clearly didn’t skip leg day!
But Gendry, now Gendry Baratheon assuming Dany’s legitimising of him can somehow stand, has never really exhibited anything resembling leadership potential. If he were somehow installed on the Iron Throne it would likely be a reign akin to his father’s. His council would do most of the job of ruling, with Gendry as a figurehead. This could work, depending on the council, but doesn’t really qualify him as a leader.
Tyrion is unlikely to sit on the Iron Throne, but like his father before him, there is a possibility that as Hand he could be the power behind the throne. He is a smart guy, and has summed up his own abilities thusly, “I drink and I know things.” But while this was once true, the Tyrion we see as Hand to Daenerys is not as effective as the Tyrion who was Hand to Joffrey. In his earlier Handship we saw him outsmart political enemies, rein in Joffrey (somewhat) and prepare the defences of King’s Landing well enough for the Battle of Blackwater that the city stood long enough for Tywin to sweep in to the “rescue”. This Tyrion had few followers, but those he had were fiercely loyal because of his ability to inspire personal connections in the most unlikely people.
But he was eventually out-played, put on trial, betrayed (twice) by Shae, jailed and then driven to kill his own father. This must have hurt him to the core. We saw him dive into a bottle, and despite Varys pulling him out, I don’t think Tyrion ever truly recovered.
Tyrion as Dany’s Hand has made a lot of mistakes, his confidence knocked, he is more conservative than before. Less able to act boldly under his own agency, he is too eager to follow and allow others to act, than act himself. His political instincts in Meereen were solid, but still things spiralled out of his control.
The fatal flaw that will be Tyrion’s undoing in the end, though, is in the face of all logic and experience he still puts his family ahead of his own interests.
In terms of leadership, young Tyrion is a strong contender: a sharp-minded, bold player of the game, able to inspire loyalty in unusual places. Older, damaged Tyrion is too prone to second guessing and equivocation to make a strong leader, however.
Look, you’re not happy I’m talking about him, I’m not happy I’m talking about him. Let’s just do this and move on. Nobody cares about Euron. His path to the Iron Throne would be through marrying Cersei, and even if he were to manage that, Cersei would never release power to him. Perhaps he’s planning an accident for her, but that’s a pretty toxic relationship on both sides. Did I mention nobody cares about Euron?
The TV show has been fairly unsuccessful in making Euron a credible villain, but in the books he is less of a buffoon. Book Euron has a much stronger personal power-base, and has access to certain magics which could make him a threat. But it still wouldn’t make him a leader. The guy ripped out the tongues of the crew of his flagship, the Silence, so they would keep his secrets.
Let’s move on, because nobody cares about Euron.
Sansa Stark has perhaps the strongest upward arc of any character in Game of Thrones. Starting as the brattiest, least likable Stark child, she has been pushed around the game board by one player after another, she has had the cruellest of educations by some of the very worst in Westeros. Promised to Joffrey, married to Tyrion, manipulated by Cersei and Littlefinger, married again to Ramsey, she has suffered things I do not wish to recount here. Torture of every manner imaginable.
And yet the Sansa we see now as the Lady of Winterfell has an iron core, has learned the game from every person who manipulated her, to the point that she was able to outplay Petyr Baelish himself. Fiercely independent and loyal to her people in the North, Sansa is one of the few players in the game who seems to care about the logistics of it all. Her planning for the siege of Winterfell, her understanding of the limitations of her people, she is perhaps the most practical and pragmatic player left in the game. And while she seems fated to always stand in the shadow of her brothers (because of the underlying sexism of the Westerosi political system), if the Seven Kingdoms are to prosper, they need someone like Sansa in charge.
The biggest stumbling block to her effectiveness as a leader, at time of writing, is that she has clearly made an enemy of Daenerys, and with Dany’s turn to the dark side in the episode The Bells, that might indicate bad things could still happen to Sansa in the finale…
The quintessential villain of Game of Thrones, Cersei has endured many indignities and setbacks, enough that our sympathies have been with her at several points in the show’s history. Ruthless, clever, vengeful, single-minded, yet fiercely protective of her children. Cersei inherited much of her father’s cunning but lacked some of his subtlety and restraint.
Her rise to power was born from ambition and tragedy. She had the strength to seize her chance at many vital tipping points, exploiting weaknesses in her allies and enemies alike, from Janos Slynt to the Tyrells. But her rise has been far from smooth. She has buried all of her children, and has frequently been on the verge of losing all of her power. Unlike Sansa, most of Cersei’s problems in the show were self-inflicted . Her treatment by the High Sparrow, for example, could never have happened if she hadn’t opened the door in an attempt to take down Margaery Tyrell.
How to characterise her leadership style, though? She is one of the great manipulators in the Game, using Eddard Stark’s honour against him and twisting Jaime’s love for her to serve her purpose. But she has a practical bent too, and knows that coin will buy a lot of loyalty; she trades on her family’s name, wealth and reputation constantly. A Lannister always pays their debts, and Cersei uses that as both promise and threat.
The moment that sums up Cersei’s leadership above all is her destruction of the Sept with wildfire. In one move she destroyed all the enemies she had in King’s Landing; she sips her wine and coldly watches over her victory, not caring about the many innocents who died alongside her rivals. And that is the moment that she also loses Tommen. There is always a price to Cersei’s victories, and Cersei wins and wins and wins, and pays and pays and pays.
Born to the family that embodies the North, Jon was always going to have a strong sense of honour with a dour set of words, “Winter is coming.” Born a bastard, he would always feel like an outsider, alone at Winterfell even though most of his family treat him well. As a teenager Jon leaves the only home he’s known to join an organisation that only wears black and serves in the frozen north guarding against an implacable foe. Basically, Jon was more destined to brood than to lead. And he really leans into his brooding every chance he gets.
He’s always resisted power, but people keep giving it to him. His sense of honour and responsibility (and latterly the things he sees and experiences) means that he must reluctantly accept the role of leader. Which does cut into his brooding time, but does at least give him something new to brood about.
The iron sense of honour he learned at the knee of Eddard Stark is tempered by experience with the Wildlings, that there are other ways to live that aren’t without honour. Socrates, (the Greek philosopher from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not a Game of Thrones character, but I understand why you’d be confused) said that the only true wisdom comes from knowing you know nothing. Jon’s time with the Wildlings (and one Wildling in particular, Ygritte) brought him that wisdom too.
But Jon’s leadership style is based on more than brooding and knowing nothing. The fact is he is a capable warrior with a track record of victories, who has demonstrated an ability to compromise and put the safety of people under him ahead of rules and cultural mores. Essentially, Jon leads by being respected and popular. And if there was that one time he was betrayed and murdered by his followers, everybody (including Jon) has really moved on from that now. Least said, soonest mended.
There is a well-trod trope that only the characters who do not want power are worthy of it. That the corrupting influence of power will be better resisted by a person who doesn’t seek it. Jon is the manifestation of this trope in Game of Thrones. There is a problem with this cliché. A leader still needs to get things done, if they are reluctant to drive things forward they aren’t leading. Too often Jon has deferred to others, and as we approach the finale, he is going to need to step up. Because that fact that he is popular, successful, capable and not a bastard after all, is going to be a problem for the last character on our list.
Dany, oh Dany. Our Khaleesi. Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons. What have you done?
Daenerys is in many ways the opposite of Jon. Where he was born without apparent name or place in the world, he was supported and cared for by his family, and if he felt he had no place he has always found people to bond with. Daenerys was born into the highest family imaginable, at least to the Targaryens. And while her brother put her down constantly he did at least instil in her from the earliest age that it was their place, their right, their destiny to rule. She felt this in every fibre of her being, and if she never truly made many friends on her journey through life, she was constantly able to find new people to rule.
She had a shaky start, being traded off to the Dothraki so her brother could get an army was very much a low point. But from the moment she accepted her destiny as the true heir to the Iron Throne her forward momentum has led her to one place and one place only. She is a conqueror. A leader of armies, a winner of battles, mother of dragons, breaker of chains and all that.
All that is true. But she has rarely exhibited much talent for ruling. She romped around Slaver’s Bay breaking chains, shaking up the social order, then expecting it all to be fine afterwards. Instead, cities she liberated fell again, in Meereen the Sons of the Harpy were in outright revolt, and her solution was to impose her values on that culture and refuse to open the Fighting Pits. If you want to see Daenerys as a leader, look to Meereen, she made a right mess there, with betrayal and revolt on every street corner. Her ultimate solution? Dragonfire.
In fact, that’s her go to move. When she finally got to Westeros, she lit a fire under Lannister armies, the Tarlys, undead armies and eventually Varys for yet another betrayal. It is her solution to pretty much every problem.
And as season seven and eight progressed we saw Dany getting more and more isolated. As friends and allies betrayed her, deserted her or died, she suffered the loss of one dragon, and then another, learned the man she had fallen in love with was in fact her greatest rival to the throne. By the time of the siege of King’s Landing, Daenerys was more alone than she’d been in her life, and in that moment, she snapped, just like she has snapped before. And the dragonfire came.
(As an aside, while I see what the show was going for, and I completely get Daenerys’s turn from a plot point of view, I don’t actually believe the show had done enough to justify the turn from a character point of view. But that’s more a critique of the show than an analysis of a leadership style. Let’s move on).
At the end of the day, Daenerys is fierce, intelligent, brave, dedicated, a saviour to many, a rightful ruler to some, and a powerful conqueror. A brilliant character… but she was never much of a leader.
We see leadership of many forms play out in the Game of Thrones. If I were to choose a single word to represent the leadership styles of our biggest characters, I think it would look something like:
The Night King leads through single-mindedness.
Tyrion leads through intelligence.
Sansa leads through understanding.
Cersei leads through manipulation.
Jon leads through popularity.
Daenerys leads through… I don’t know, dragons?
So who should sit on the Iron Throne, assuming it even still exists? It can’t be Daenerys, not now. The most capable leader left in the game is probably Sansa Stark, but if you have to rule from King’s Landing, I can’t see her ever travelling there again.
Weirdly, as I read this article back to myself, I’m wondering if I haven’t convinced myself that Gendry Baratheon might not be a bad choice. Install Tyrion as his Hand, Sansa as his Master of Coin… you have the start of a really strong small council to cover for a figurehead king.
Either him or the Night King, anyway.
What do you think? Who is (was) the character with the best leadership potential?
By Rob Edwards – May 18, 2019