Nonprofit Leadership: 5 Things We Can Learn from Game of Thrones

Eddard Stark Game of Thrones

Television can be an effective teaching tool, if you let it. This is round 2 of “leadership lessons learned from [insert TV show here],” which I originally kicked off by gushing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s potent life lessons awhile back.

(Listen to this while you’re reading. It’ll get you in the mood. And it’s awesome.)

So! Here we go for some Game of Thrones leadership lessons.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read the books, but the TV series has given me plenty to think about (when it wasn’t giving me nightmares or causing me to plunge off a cliff of deep despair). Also: Assuming you still haven’t seen Game of Thrones and your friends’ Facebook feeds haven’t ruined it for you already, consider this your spoiler alert.

In the ever-changing, mentally and emotionally challenging world of nonprofit work, things can sometimes go horribly awry despite your best leadership efforts. Sometimes others around you don’t share your vision. And sometimes, people you really root for unexpectedly and horribly fail.

Heeding a few leadership lessons from Game of Thrones can, hopefully, save you a little grief as you climb that treacherous, icy wall towards social impact and nonprofit success:

1. Don’t overlook talent or judge a book by its cover.

Sometimes a person will surprise you by helping save the kingdom or turn out to be an unexpected ally. You just need to give them a chance. Once Tyrion and Jaime Lannister were given opportunities to show they weren’t complete schlubs, they managed to surprise and delight with acts of cunning and compassion. Tyrion kept a swarm of enemies at bay long enough for daddy to secure the city. Jaime saved a woman who was his enemy, twice, when he could have just as easily abandoned her to her fate.

Jaime Lannister Brienne Bear Pit Game of Thrones

2. Empower others to act…

When given an opportunity to command a formidable army of disciplined, unstoppable slaves, Daenerys Targaryen stuck to her anti-slavery values and took a risk: Freeing the mass, she gave them the choice to leave unharmed, or follow her of their own accord. In a goose-bump inducing moment, the galvanized Unsullied rallied around her, and selected their own leader from their ranks. Granted, no one in the nonprofit realm is commanding slave armies, but the Mother of Dragons’ bold move shows us that putting power in the hands of others to act and lead is far more powerful than trying to command from on high.  

3. …But don’t shy away from your own authority, either.

Daenerys knows the value of putting power in the hands of others, but isn’t afraid to rely on her own wisdom and authority as a leader, either. Ever worried that others didn’t trust your leadership judgment because of your age, gender, or perceived level of naivete? Just picture her saying these words in a dramatic voice and you’ll feel better:  

Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones


“I value your advice, but if you ever question me in front of strangers again, you’ll be advising someone else.” ~ Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons and veritable bad-ass


4. Don’t give in to peer pressure.

Even if everyone else makes being a selfish jerk-face easy, that doesn’t mean you have to be one. Sometimes it takes extra guts to defy a self-serving culture and do the right thing. When Jon Snow gathered his last ounce of strength to save Ygritte from plummeting to her doom off the edge of the Wall, the Wildlings rolled their eyes, but he knew he did good. The lesson here: Being the good guy or gal, despite what others think, is worth it.

You know nothing jon snow Game of Thrones

5. Make sure your supporters and friends know you’re grateful… before it’s too late.

Sometimes it’s inevitable that you’ll displease your supporters, volunteers, or donors somehow. Perhaps it’s not always possible to compensate for your mistakes. But when you can, it’s better to show you’re grateful (or in some cases, sorry) soon rather than risk losing them (or your heads). Okay, so this didn’t exactly work out for the Starks.

But it’s still good advice.


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