Can Game of Thrones Inform Leadership and Management Training?

By Caroline Avey - October 05, 2017

Game of Thrones is a highly entertaining series, but the value of this show goes beyond entertainment; there are lessons to be learned as well. Here are some tips that can lead to better outcomes in leadership and management training.

How can Game of Thrones provide insights for development of leadership skills? The popular television series has broken records both with 25.1  million U. S. viewers and by winning the most Emmy Awards of any fictional series, with 110 nominations and thirty-eight wins.  In 2015 The Hollywood Reporter placed it at number four on their "best TV shows ever" list and in 2016 Rolling Stone named it the twelfth "greatest TV Show of all time”. With viewership and accolades such as this, Game of Thrones is a cultural force to be acknowledged as well as understood for implications to training and professional development.

So, what is the secret of Game of Throne’s success? Whether you are a diehard fan or a skeptic, read on. No spoiler alert here, but instead four, fun insights to share for application to engaging leadership learning.

Fantasy vs. Realism: Fantasy in learning and development training? Before you stop reading, give this idea some consideration. Game of Thrones is in the fantasy genre which would normally appeal to a niche audience, yet not only does the show appeal to masses, but specifically targeted to adult masses. According to Forbes, “Thrones is aimed squarely at adults, and it is not campy, self-referential, or comical. It basically does what serious science fiction and fantasy have always done, functioning as a symbolic commentary on the main social and political issues of the day.”

Game of Thrones balances placing the viewer in a fantasy world that feels like the real world. This same fictional, but realistic immersion can also apply to leadership development training programs, including those incorporating a business simulation.  As learning professionals, we know that experiential learning is a powerful strategy to ensure learning applicability and stickiness.  There is an art to ensuring that the experience provides a safe environment and helps suspend belief through a simulated environment, but at the same time, the fantasy environment must have enough fidelity to be believable.  Not all case studies or business simulations must emulate the world in which your future leaders operate, but the key is to emulate the stresses, topics and tensions they face in reality.

Complexity: Intellectual viewers enjoy the level of complexity they see in Game of Thrones. Forbes also asserts that “Game of Thrones is arguably one of the smartest, most nuanced shows around, in both plot and language. So smart, in fact, that it can be hard to follow, but doing so is rewarding since our brains crave the cerebral work the show has us do.” 

This is a great message for how we might approach learning and development training.  In multiple years of reviewing organizational learning, what I often see is simplicity. We frequently teach linear concepts whereas, in the business world, skills are not applied one at a time. My advice and lesson from Game of Thrones? Don’t dumb it down. Consider adding complexity to your leadership and management training programs with skills taught in context of complex situations practicing multiple new skills at the same time, such as a challenge of analytical skills paired with communication skills.  Good simulation training challenges the learners with tensions and stresses they encounter in real life.  Complexity in learning fosters the critical thinking and decision-making skills so important to leadership development.

Pacing: One of the criteria that I always hear for learning and development training is that the experience must be engaging. Managing the pace of leadership learning is a key element to engagement. So often in adult learning, we focus on a strong beginning or “what’s in it for me”, ora good hook at the beginning of the learning to engage learners.  

Additionally, it is important to monitor “tension” that learning builds throughout the experience. In business simulations, we often design learning to have the most intensity in the middle of the modules. But the Game of Thrones writers have made it a point to focus on the end of the episode.  They strategize as to how the episode will have a strong finish and then work the entire story backward to support the dramatic ending. This was interesting to me and struck me as something that could be applied to leadership and management training.  Each episode ends with a strong idea or message.  

What is the last message you are leaving with your learners? While you might not end a session with dragon appearing (imagine that!), what thought-provoking idea or experience will your learners take away from the experience? How can you craft content to build to that strong focus that leaves them wanting more?

Character Development: The complexity of the characters in Game of Thrones is one of its most appealing attributes.  Whether you read the book or watch the first episode, you are soon drawn into the depths of author George R.R. Martin’s cast of characters.  

The characters are instilled with both greatness and humanness at the same time. Critic and reviewer T.M.Wagner says, for many fans, it is precisely this level of "realness" and "completeness"–including many characters' imperfections, moral and ethical ambiguity, and (often sudden) consequential plot twiststhat is endearing about Martin's work. 

So how is character development in a TV series applicable to corporate leadership training? Think about the characters we include in the case studies, role plays and business simulations we create to help prepare our emerging leaders for their roles. Could we treat them, in some ways, like Martin treats his characters?

What if we built those characters with rich and very human traits to appeal to our emerging leaders’ analytical and emotional responses. Or considered how to optimize other character opportunities by bringing in guest speakers such other leaders, customers, market/financial analysts that are willing to share greatness and humanness in what they share. It’s likely that if we added an element of characterization to leadership development training programs, the result would be much more engaging and impactful. Not to mention fun!

So as season 7 comes to a close and many fans (including the author) must wait a year for the 8th and final season, we can linger on the thought-provoking challenges that George Martin wishes us to consider such as diversity, integrity, inclusivity, leading by example, management of power and resources, and inspiring others.

Do these sound familiar to your leadership and management training program?  The Game of Thrones expression of “winter is coming” is actually appropriate for now. Take a moment to watch an episode or two, or better yet, read the first book in the series, then think of how you might enrich your professional development training program with insights from Game of Thrones.


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