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Lessons on Power and Encouragement from Game of Thrones

Ever since I saw the “Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” episode from the final season of Game of Thrones, the above scene has been stuck in my head and in my heart. It has done the thing that great art does; I have reflected on myself, on those around me, and have even tried to apply some of what I think this 5 minute scene can teach us.

The short setup for the scene is pretty simple: the participants are all waiting in the night for what they anticipate is going to be an Armageddon level event, a battle between humanity and the zombie-like white walkers from the North. The odds are desperately against them and they are preparing themselves for war.

The key participants that I want to look at are:

  1. Brienne of Tarth,
  2. her squire Podrick Payne,
  3. Tormund Giantsbane of the people from the North,
  4. and the legendary knight and warrior Sir Jaime Lannister.

Brienne of Tarth is a woman warrior and has proven herself throughout the show as being worthy of the high calling of a knight. She is strong, fierce, honorable. She has defended the weak, beaten back oppressors and, above all, kept her word.

On at least part of that journey, she has been accompanied by Podrick, a squire, meaning that, in theory, he is studying under her to become a knight, even as she is not one. While Brienne has some issues before coming around to her mentor role with Podrick, she does eventually come around.

Jaime Lannister and Brienne have history, as she escorted him back to his family after he was captured, and through it they became close – with the television hints of “Will they or won’t they?” heightening the story. Above all, Jaime knows her bravery and power firsthand.

And lastly, Tormund is an outsider, one of the wild people from the other side of the great wall that keeps all the civilized safe from the uncivilized and the White Walkers. So what can we learn from this scene?

Sometimes we are Brienne of Tarth. There are times in our lives and careers where we are working towards something, seeking the goal. Lady Brienne does want to be a knight, to be honored not because of the title, but because of what it represents: a recognition of her power, her bravery, her service.

But she has hit a limit. Tradition says that she cannot have that honor. It is not subtle but when she declares “I don’t want to be a knight” that the camera shifts to Podrick, her squire, who gives her a look that says “Uh, the others might believe that but I ain’t buying it.”

What is the thing that you want but have given up on? What is the honor that you crave even as you tell yourself that you are over it and don’t really need it?

Sometimes we are Podrick. One of the things that I have learned in a career shift into an entirely new industry over the last 5 years is how little has been written about the role of being a supportive follower or mentee.

We live in a world where we are taught to fight, claw and strive for the things that we want and there is some importance in working hard for what you want to achieve.

But there also should be time to celebrate those above us. I’ve come to think that the loneliest chair in an organization is the one at the top of it; it is the trial of never fully knowing if the people you are leading are following, of struggling with the reality of have you convinced them, of them telling you what they think you want to hear.

In this scene, there are two great, subtle head nods from Podrick. The first is when he calls out Brienne: he knows she desperately wants to be a knight. The second is when, with a subtle head nod, he tells her to take it.

Most of us are going to be Podrick’s at points in our lives and careers. How can we encourage, help and affirm the people who are leading us?

Sometimes we are Tormund. Tormund is used through much of the show as comic relief, as bringing that outsider perspective to a situation that everyone already knows. And while part of what he says is rooted in his desire for Brienne, part of it is rooted in what he knows: any system that cannot recognize Brienne of Tarth as a warrior, a leader, a knight doesn’t deserve to be followed.

One of the best things you can do when you are new to an organization is speak up and ask questions about the things you don’t understand. Companies and organizations drift towards complacency. The thing that stands out as a glaring issue to a newcomer can far too easily get lost when you see it every day, over and over.

And, also like Tormund, make sure when you see people doing stellar things that they are recognized. In my current job, I sit in a position where I can see the whole field, so to speak. When things need to happen, I am aware of the person 3 or 4 tiers down the organizational ladder that had to work extra to make something happen and I have tried to encourage the leaders around me to recognize those people, sometimes with gifts but, just as meaningfully, with short notes. It is my way of trying to be a bit like Tormund.

Sometimes we are Sir Jaime Lannister. In this scene, Jaime is the highest of them all in terms of power. He is a knight. He has achieved the peak thing, even having lead armies into battles and defended the capital city.

But he chooses to honor Brienne and make her a knight. The thing that is intriguing to me is that no new circumstance happened since Brienne and he were last together, at least not in terms of her readiness to be recognized as as knight. The only thing that has changed is his perspective, when someone else basically stands up and says “Whoah. How are they not recognizing what we see in you?”

It is a real challenge for those of us in leadership: are we recognizing the work, the effort, and the gifts of the people closest to us? Are we actively working to make sure that those around us are rewarded and recognized?

No matter what role you find yourself in, you can impact those around you for the better, by understanding the challenges of leadership, by encouraging people past the challenges they face in their path, by honoring those who have done well and by continuing forth in your own journey, no matter what stands in your path.

Finally, if you enjoyed the scene, may I recommend to you the Jenny Owens Young song above, written as a response to this episode. I discovered it through the Cast of Kings podcast but it has been a favorite of mine ever since. You can find more of Jenny’s work at Buffering the Vampire Slayer.

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