Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones

Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones

by Bruce Craven


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“When it comes to the most-anticipated business books of 2019, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets From Game of Thrones is the one to beat.”—Inc.

A guide to leading without losing your head, inspired by the bestselling books and smash television series Game of Thrones.

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." —Cersei Lannister

One of the great joys of Game of Thrones is strategizing what bold moves you'd make in this bloody, volatile world—from the comfort of your living room. And one of the great terrors of being a leader is knowing your real world can be just as brutal—and offices bring no comfort.

Every day you're presented with opportunities and challenges, and must decide which roads to follow, which risks to confront, when to deny an opportunity and when to pursue the call to adventure. And you won't know whether you'll profit or fail while you're in the thick of it. In Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, Bruce Craven brilliantly analyzes the journeys of the best and worst leaders in Westeros, so that leaders can create their own narratives of success.

Craven considers beloved characters such as Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Tyrion Lannister as they make terrible decisions and fatal mistakes, but also achieve incredible victories and surprising successes, learning and growing along their (often bloody) ways. Readers will learn how to face conflict and build resilience, develop contextual and emotional intelligence, develop their vision, and more.

This entertaining and accessible guide will show readers how to turn danger into opportunity, even when dragons threaten.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250301178
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 630,368
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

BRUCE CRAVEN teaches his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction at Columbia Business School, where he also serves as the Director of Columbia’s Advanced Management Program. He has taught workshops in resilience and flexible thinking for organizations in the United States and Europe. He studied politics and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and has a MFA in Writing from Columbia University. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

Read an Excerpt


Don't Be Ned Stark!


In Westeros, Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark faces significant leadership challenges when King Robert travels north and requests Ned's services: "I want you down in King's Landing, not up here at the end of the world where you are no damned use to anybody." Ned travels with his daughters to the capital. Lord Stark enters a city of potential allies and enemies. Exhausted and hungry from travel, he takes his seat at the table as Hand of the King. He studies the five men present at the urgent meeting of the small council called by Grand Maester Pycelle. Ned wonders which, in the words of King Robert, "were the flatterers and which the fools. He thought he knew already."

Down in King's Landing

Ned reacts instinctively, guided by his personal values. He doesn't realize his values are subjective. He makes faulty assumptions. Ned fails to understand an important leadership insight: the people he has been tasked to report to, work with, and lead have different values from his own or share values but present themselves with less transparency.

As a result, Ned's biases about values trigger a disastrous argument with his boss, King Robert, and blind him to the advantages of a partnership with the Master of Whisperers, Lord Varys. Ned follows his values but doesn't factor into his decisions any of his subjective perspective on the values of other people on the King's Small Council or the values of people, such as Queen Cersei, who have influence with the King. Ned Stark underestimates Queen Cersei and he badly evaluates the Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish. Ned Stark isn't able to recover from his leadership misjudgment.

When King Robert Baratheon loses his temper with Ned in a Small Council meeting in King's Landing, it is because Ned, serving as Hand of the King, has questioned King Robert's courage. Ned is also courageous but his idea of courage is primarily about fulfilling his duty and obligation to his community, to act with honor, as well as to protect his family. This is where their problems begin. If King Robert thought he had hired Ned as a friend who would always defer to Robert's position as king of the Seven Kingdoms, he was mistaken. They share certain values but rank them differently.

Ned Stark assumes his values are a good method to evaluate all the members of King Robert's Small Council, as well as other stakeholders in the King's family, such as Queen Cersei and the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister. Ned doesn't work to understand what values might motivate the other people who report to King Robert. Ned doesn't understand that the values that guide his decision making are irrelevant to colleagues he considers under his jurisdiction as Hand of the King. These people — potential colleagues or competitors — base their decisions on their own personal values. Ned also blinds himself to the opportunity of building partnerships with colleagues who have similar values because those colleagues aren't transparent and easy for Ned to understand and evaluate. If a colleague in a leadership role doesn't present himself exactly as Ned would present himself, then Ned decides that colleague cannot be trusted or can't have the same values that Ned considers important.

The Small Council is debating the news that a young woman, Daenerys Targaryen, is pregnant in Essos. Daenerys's long-dead father, King Aerys, held the Iron Throne before King Robert. If Daenerys gives birth to a baby boy, people could claim her Targaryen son has a right to King Robert's monarchy.

Ned and Robert, both allies and former brothers-in-arms during Robert's Rebellion, argue about a solution that involves sending an assassin to kill the pregnant Daenerys Targaryen:

Ned fought to keep the scorn out of his voice, and failed.

"Have the years so unmanned you that you tremble at the shadow of an unborn child?"

Robert purpled. "No more, Ned," he warned, pointing. "Not another word. Have you forgotten who is king here?"

Ned had more luck swaying King Robert earlier by appealing to another one of his values: pride. The King wants to compete in a melee, a brutal fight with other knights that will turn into hand-to-hand brawling. The violence and danger don't trouble King Robert. What troubles him is Ned pointing out that the other knights won't fight hard against their King.

The king rose to his feet, his face flushed. "Are you telling me those prancing cravens will let me win?"

"For a certainty," Ned said, and Ser Barristan Selmy bowed his head in silent accord.

King Robert realizes that fighting in the melee will not provide opportunity to prove his courage so he loses interest and returns to his vices. Ned appreciates having fulfilled his duty.

In leadership, we have a responsibility to understand our values. Our values motivate us. We also have a responsibility to not be owned and controlled by our values.

Queen Cersei knows that Robert's courage makes him vulnerable to wanting to prove it. When her initial plan to have him assassinated during the melee is foiled, she drugs his wine, aware he will attempt to prove his courage on a hunting trip. She is right and succeeds at using the King's values against him to achieve her personal ends: his mortal injury. King Robert never recognized that what he saw as his greatest strength was also his greatest weakness.

Ned suffers the same fate when he judges the Queen according to his own values. When faced with Ned's threat to reveal the parentage of her children, Cersei doesn't see a duty to gather her children and escape from King's Landing to protect her family from King Robert's wrath; rather, she sees an opportunity to prove her courage and superiority, defend her family, and increase her power. She won't run. The Queen will seize the Iron Throne.

Ned compounds his mistake by underestimating the cunning of Petyr Baelish. He doesn't like Baelish but still finds the pact that Baelish offers easier to accept than trusting the Master of Whisperers, Lord Varys. Varys, also known disparagingly as the Spider, puts himself in a vulnerable position by approaching Ned in disguise and sharing confidential information with him. Lord Varys's attempt to communicate in private with Ned is in alignment with Ned's values. This is an act of courage, duty, and honor by Lord Varys, but Ned Stark doesn't see it that way. Ned only understands certain values if they are presented in a way similar to his own behavior. Varys can't be acting with courage and honor, thinks Ned, because if he was he wouldn't need to sneak into Ned's room in disguise. Ned believes in complete transparency and he rejects the possibility of an alliance with someone who uses deception.

On top of this, Ned Stark finds the political and tactical maneuvering of the various players in King's Landing to be a sign of their corruption. Ned is overwhelmed by the subterfuge Varys has revealed behind the murder of the former Hand of the King, Jon Arryn. "Wheels within wheels within wheels. Ned's head was pounding." Ned understandably despises the subterfuge and betrayal that resulted in Jon Arryn's murder, yet he almost seems to blame Varys, the hopeful ally that brings him the information, for the murder. Ned has a colleague right in front of him with similar values, but Ned judges Varys and blinds himself to an opportunity.

Our values usually operate at a subconscious level, driving our behavior. Indeed, following our values often brings out the best in us, catalyzing our motivation and commitment. My colleague at Columbia Business School, Professor Paul Ingram, writes, "Your values are your internal control system. When moments of crisis occur, we rarely have time to explore options and consider alternatives in any depth. It is our core values that we rely on to guide us." When possible, we should identify our values, recognize that they are motivating us, and use them as a way to build our leadership effectiveness. The more clarity we can elicit about how our values are impacting our leadership, the better.


In 1965, William D. Guth and Renato Tagiuri published an article on organizational culture in the Harvard Business Review titled "Personal Values and Corporate Strategy." The article points out "our values are so much an intrinsic part of our lives and behavior that we are often unaware of them — or, at least, we are unable to think about them clearly and articulately." This lack of awareness is what happens when King Robert and Lord Stark fail at leading themselves and their colleagues. Their failures have a terrible cost and trigger the War of the Five Kings.

We owe it to ourselves, our colleagues, and our organizations to learn to operate with self-knowledge regarding our values and the opportunities and challenges that our values can present. If we derail because we mismanage our values, we can pay a high cost.

Leaders have an obligation to understand the challenges and opportunities presented by our values. Guth and Tagiuri explain: "Values are such an intrinsic part of a person's life and thought that he tends to take them for granted, unless they are questioned or challenged. He acquires them very early in life. They are transmitted to him through his parents, teachers, and other significant persons in his environment who, in turn, acquired their values in similar fashion. Child-rearing practices are expressions of a family's values, and of the values of the social group to which the family belongs." This was written in the 1960s when use of the pronoun "he" was the habit. Of course the insight is true for everyone.

The Advanced Management Program (AMP) at the Columbia Business School uses coaching sessions where executives are led through the process of identifying their values. To be clear, in this process, the term "values" relates to "personal values" as opposed to "corporate values." Identifying values is used to help business leaders gain perspective on what is important to them on an individual level: what drives them, what contributes to their fulfillment, and what motivates and supports their leadership.

Paul Ingram, the faculty director of Columbia Business School's AMP, says, "We have been using a process for over a decade that, through one-to-one coaching, allows participants to highlight their eight key values, which they note on a Values Card. I continue to meet former participants years after they completed the program, who still carry their Values Card with them, though ironically they almost all have perfect recollection of their eight values."

Working as director of AMP for over ten years with Professor Ingram, I have seen firsthand how coaching executives on their values provides insights about themselves and their leadership. These insights stick with them and continue to guide them as a resource in critical decision making. Professor Ingram, who also does research on values, writes, "Our research indicates that it is not the broad sweep of common values that hold people together (though not having that commonality certainly sets us apart), but our sense that we prioritize those values in a similar way. Work that we have done with Columbia Business School MBA students, over many years of intakes, shows that the single strongest predictor of who will become friends with whom in the program is if they have similar value priorities." If you and your team prioritize your values in a similar way, it is easier to build strong relationships. This requires a reminder that leaders will prioritize values differently from others and must be aware of the challenges and opportunities that this difference in rankings will have on their leadership efforts.

Professor Shalom H. Schwartz, an expert in the field of values research, in "An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values" writes, "Each of us holds numerous values (e.g., achievement, security, benevolence) with varying degrees of importance. A particular value may be very important to one person but unimportant to another." Individuals and groups prioritize their values in varying orders. They may have similar values but assign them to greater or lesser degrees of importance. This prioritizing that each person does, usually subconsciously, is called a "values hierarchy." Professor Schwartz explains that there are six main features to values: 1) we believe in them and have emotional reactions to them; 2) they refer to goals that drive our actions; 3) we believe in them despite what outside norms are encouraged; 4) they are the way we decide what is good or bad, justified or unjustified; 5) they exist in hierarchies; and 6) we base our action on trade-offs determined by how we evaluate competing values. All values have these six qualities. "What distinguishes one from another is the type of goal or motivation that it expresses."

Schwartz believes values serve to help us cope with three universal demands on our existence: 1) values help us get our needs fulfilled as biological organisms; 2) values help us coordinate our social interaction; and 3) values help with the survival and welfare of groups. People's values cause them to pursue appropriate goals, communicate with others about those goals, and work in cooperation to achieve those goals. "Values are the socially desirable concepts used to representthese goals mentally and the vocabulary used to express them in social interaction."

We are driven to satisfy our values. "Values can be guides to what needs, wants, desires people should have, what interests, preferences, and goals are seen as desirable or undesirable, what individual dispositions or traits one ought to have, and what beliefs and attitudes individuals should express." Ralph H. Kilmann, CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics and former professor of organization and management at the Katz School of Business, published those words in 1981, pointing out that values are distinct from organizational norms, as well as from beliefs, attitudes, sentiments, and opinions. It is our values that drive the other behaviors and ways of thinking. "Values, as has been suggested, are seen as fairly independent from any one context."

Values drive leaders forward in pursuit of achievement. Values may operate in some form of alignment with an organization's corporate values but they are individual, primary to how business leaders find motivation, focus, and the language to present themselves as leaders. Here are some examples of situations that can benefit from an awareness of values:

• Consideration of our values is helpful when we attempt to problem-solve and create positive opportunities in our organizations. If we understand our individual values, we are better prepared to see the opportunities and risks behind our value preferences.

• Understanding our values provides a lens to see what motivates us and reflect on how we can support others, understand their preferences, and offer to support them.

• Understanding our values allows us to be more specific in our communication with people. We can explain why certain decisions satisfy our values and are important to us, and we can ask questions to better understand the values and motivations of other people.

• Our anger is often triggered if our values are not satisfied. Understanding our values helps us see the catalyst to our emotional responses.

• In terms of selecting or leaving jobs, bosses, colleagues, subordinates, careers, and companies, it is important to understand whether or not our values are aligned. Even if our values are different in certain ways, it is important to consider that communication may be able to build win-win opportunities for our values to be satisfied. If not, we may have to reject or leave that working relationship, organization, etc.

Values in the Workplace

Values are shaped by how we interpret the lessons of our lives. Objects are not personal values. For example, an executive, Sarah, may see her four-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler as synonymous with spending time in nature. She may see the Rocky Mountains as the perfect environment to reach her top value of peace. The Jeep is not the value. The mountain range is not the value. Her value of peace may be fulfilled after a day of downhill skiing and a beautiful drive home to her family in Denver, Colorado, but her value of peace can also be fulfilled by her role as the chief development officer for a nonprofit organization.

Her effort and focus in generating support from corporate partnerships could catalyze an excitement similar to the feeling she gets navigating the Black Diamond runs at her favorite ski resort. Her value of peace isn't limited to one or two of her behaviors. She looks for the value in many different areas of her life. Sometimes she satisfies it, sometimes she doesn't.

In her role as chief development officer, Sarah focuses on supporting the organization's value of creating an inclusive culture. She believes in that value but is tested on a daily basis by a colleague, John, who supports the value of inclusion verbally in meetings, yet contradicts the organizational value in his daily behavior. He judges his colleagues, expressing biting condemnations about what he sees as their limitations. He is short-tempered, jumps to negative assumptions about their motivations, and is divisive during one-to-one interactions.


Excerpted from "Win Or Die"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Bruce Craven.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 Don't Be Ned Stark! 1

2 See True! 23

3 Be a Player, Not a Piece! 51

4 Be More Than a Sword-Hand! 71

5 Ride to Meereen! 95

6 Don't Walk Fly! 127

7 Don't Get Assassinated! 153

8 Find Dragonglass! 183

9 Kill the White Walker! 211

10 Ride Dragons! 233

Acknowledgments 263

Notes 267

Index 283

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