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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Win or Die

Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones

Bruce Craven

Thomas Dunne Books





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.”5 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.”6

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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?”7

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.8

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.”9 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.”10 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.

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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.”11 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.”12 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.”13

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.”14 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.”15 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.”16

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.17 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 represent these goals mentally and the vocabulary used to express them in social interaction.”18

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.”19 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.”20

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.

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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.

Sarah has a second value of honesty. Confronting John’s behavior won’t contribute in the short term to a feeling of peace for Sarah, but it is also important for her to act with honesty. She makes the decision to talk with John about the situation. Because Sarah and John have agreed verbally with the organizational importance of being inclusive, she can speak to that value. However, she should remember that her personal values are subjective: important to her but not necessarily to John.

If Sarah assumes John is also driven by the personal values of peace and honesty, she could put herself, unwittingly, into a vulnerable position. He might have different values, or similar values prioritized in a different order. John’s top two values might be recognition and achievement. He might see the organizational commitment to being inclusive as being in fundamental conflict with his individual motivation to be recognized for achievement. This tension very likely won’t be resolved without coaching aimed at gaining clarity on the mutual perspectives of John and Sarah, including defining a method to align the conflict in the values of the two colleagues and the organization. Sarah should follow her values but recognize that what motivates John in terms of his values might be different, and act with an awareness of the potential difference in what motivates her and John.

Satisfaction with our values stimulates the energy, confidence, and focus that drive our capability to be effective, but if our values aren’t satisfied, frustration can occur. If you strongly value accomplishment and independence, yet you work in an environment where you are being micro-managed and aren’t allowed to see projects through to completion, these constraints can keep you from reaching your primary value of happiness. You might recognize that you can’t achieve satisfaction in that given role or organization or with a particular boss. You might recognize that you need to make a significant change in your professional situation. The motivation to fulfill one’s value of happiness triggers impatience if the leader is blocked by an organization that keeps them from carrying their projects through to completion. I recently heard of exactly this situation in an executive coaching discussion with a graduate of Columbia’s AMP.

The executive recognized that her efforts to improve her organization would not be supported. She was compensated well and her role was manageable, but she recognized that her top value of making a difference would not be supported by her organization. She would not be able to satisfy the one standard of criteria that mattered the most to her: making a difference. She realized it was time for her to talk to headhunters and develop an exit strategy.

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Here is an exercise to help you identify your values.


Write down five or six concrete actions that you enjoy. Some of these may be related to work, some related to hobbies, some to other commitments: family, spiritual development, sports, etc. You may prefer to use index cards or Post-its in order to move your responses and identified values into various hierarchies as you consider your priorities.

Be sure to write down the action itself, not the feeling you gain from the action; for example:

1) Play guitar

2) Shop with friends

3) Implement IT systems

4) Attend church

5) Scuba dive

6) Organize paperwork


Once you have completed Step One, write down an abstract word that captures the positive feeling you get when you do the above actions. Don’t worry if the dictionary would use the word in that specific sense; write down a word that captures the action best for you. Push the abstraction as far as you can. For example, if you like to shop with friends, is it because you enjoy staying involved with current styles? Is it because you want to strengthen relationships with friends? It might be a combination of the two. What does the experience provide for you? Maybe finding the perfect dress that fits your style makes you feel prepared. Or stylish? Maybe shopping with your friends makes you feel connected. Or creates a sense of trust? Look for the best word to capture how the action makes you feel. Some actions might trigger a similar reaction. For example, Attend church and Scuba dive might both cause a person to feel harmony.

1) Play guitar = Engagement

2) Shop with friends = Connected

3) Implement IT systems = Focus

4) Attend church = Harmony

5) Scuba dive = Harmony

6) Organize paperwork = Responsible


Once you have completed Step Two, organize the abstract words in order from most important to least important. In our sample, the person might recognize that harmony is an abstract word that captures elements of how they feel when they are responsible, engaged, and connected. Harmony would be higher in their hierarchy. The other values lead up to the core value of harmony. The person might realize that the sense of responsibility they achieve from organizing paperwork is a nice feeling but not as important to them as the deep focus they achieve in working with IT systems and that playing guitar brings this focus up to another level where the focus, skill, and creativity trigger a feeling best described as engagement. This person’s values hierarchy might be prioritized in this order:

1) Harmony

2) Engagement

3) Focus

4) Connected

5) Responsible

This isn’t a negative judgment on the value of being responsible. It means that for this person, their values build toward achieving a sense of harmony.

If this person finds opportunities in their professional or personal life that fit these values, they will likely feel more involved, excited, and committed in their effort. Let’s say this person works in the IT department. After thinking through their values, they can now see how most of the work they do brings a sense of focus and engagement. Plus, they feel connected to the whole organization’s vision and responsible to their IT department. This suggests that their values are aligned with their professional effort. They find satisfaction in how they are motivated by what they do and what is expected of them. If they are asked to leave the IT department and take a new role in the Sales department, they will benefit from considering whether or not the role offered to them has the capacity to be aligned with their values.

If the new role requires them to interact with customers and potential customers on a constant basis, this may be a misalignment for them, depending on how much their other actions involve interaction with others versus working in isolation. For example, attending church, playing guitar, shopping with friends, and scuba diving could all be activities that involve interaction in an active way with a number of people, possibly even coaching and teaching. This might suggest that moving into the new role in Sales is a positive opportunity. On the other hand, if shopping with friends involves one friend and the other activities are solitary, they may need to consider carefully when deciding if the new role offered in Sales is appealing. They may decide to step out of their comfort zone and push their values in new directions. Or, if the role being offered is a bad fit, they may recognize that working in the Sales department will, for them, be a demotivating work environment.

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Our values drive us in the real world just as they drive the characters in the novels of A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO show Game of Thrones. As leaders, it is our job to work to understand what motivates us. If we understand what drives us, we can make better leadership decisions for ourselves and clearly articulate what we stand for as leaders to those we serve to lead. It is also our job to communicate what we stand for so others can choose to follow us.

When Ned arrives in King’s Landing, he is transparent, which can often be an advantage in leadership. However, transparency is not effective if it is misconstrued and pushes away productive dialogue. Ned is authentic, but transparency and authenticity can’t be excuses for judging others and shutting down dialogue. Ned is vocal and reactive. His instinct is to be transparent, authentic, and accountable. This is exemplified by his commitment to swing the sword in an earlier situation at Winterfell where he is applying the King’s Justice and executing a criminal. Ned shares this wisdom to his son Bran: “The blood of the First Men still flows in the veins of the Starks, and we hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words.”21

This accountability is an admirable quality, but Ned also falls into judging everyone who crosses his path. He confuses his belief in his values with an expectation that everyone else should share his values.

Ned is not in control of himself as a leader. He reacts and judges his colleagues through the lens of his own values. He undermines the potential strength of following his values because he sees his values as absolute. He sees people with different values or ways of presenting similar values as flawed.

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We don’t treat all of our values as equal. Our values are subconsciously organized in values hierarchies. In the words of Schwartz, “People’s values form an ordered system of priorities that characterize them as individuals.”22 We prioritize certain values over other values. We might have similar values as our colleagues but prioritize those personal values in a different way, giving them greater or lesser emphasis. This prioritization can be a chance to build partnerships or they can initiate conflict.

If I am in a coaching session with a student, Alexandra, who defines her top three values as 1) freedom, 2) duty, and 3) truth, she will likely view the world from a different perspective than Rashmi, who defines her values as 1) truth, 2) duty, and 3) freedom. Although they both share the same three values, Rashmi might be more focused on the facts, contractual obligations, quantitative measurements, and clarified job responsibilities, whereas Alexandra might be more focused on pursuing aspirational goals, fulfilling commitments to explore potential opportunities, and seeing her job responsibilities (duty) as the driver of larger, big-picture (freedom) goals.

If we predict Ned’s and Robert’s personal values, I suggest the following value hierarchies:

The values hierarchies show that Ned and Robert share some similar values but care about those values to lesser or greater degrees. Robert has a strong commitment to courage. He lives courage in each boar hunt, in each melee, in each moment he can prove the value to himself and to his entourage. Ned knows the importance of courage but holds that value as less important than he holds duty and honor. This creates tension and puts the two colleagues in conflict.


Faced with the loss of Jon Arryn, King Robert follows his own values hierarchy. He looks for an ally he trusts. He selects Ned, a colleague and fellow brother-in-arms. The two men were raised together under the mentorship of Jon Arryn. They share a long-standing friendship, but that doesn’t mean they understand their dynamic. King Robert offers Ned a reward: the opportunity to bind their houses through marriage of their children. Is Ned the best-qualified person to step into the Small Council and operate effectively with the Spider, Littlefinger, Grand Maester Pycelle, not to mention Queen Cersei and the rest of King Robert’s circle of direct reports and family? Probably not.

Like Ned, King Robert sees the environment through his values and doesn’t recognize the subjectivity of his leadership decisions. Neither leader recognizes Cersei as the greatest risk to their authority, their own families’ well-being, and the well-being of the Seven Kingdoms. The two middle-aged alpha warriors choose to focus their leadership energy in an argument about the best tactics to defuse the threat of pregnant Daenerys Targaryen on the distant shores of Essos. The two men worry about Daenerys because she is married to a Dothraki horse-lord. It is an unlikely possibility that Dothraki warriors—terrified of the ocean—will journey by boat across the Narrow Sea; yet, enraged nomadic warriors on horseback are a threat both Robert and Ned can recognize from past battles. The threat is unlikely, but it scares them. Neither of the men can see the danger in Cersei Lannister. Neither man is scared of the woman that will be involved in their deaths.

King Robert doesn’t select a Hand of the King that has experience or expertise with office politics. The King wrongly believes that Ned’s experience as Warden of the North has prepared him for the subterfuge of King’s Landing. King Robert selects a courageous, honorable warrior he trusts to keep an eye on boring management necessities. He selects a friend he believes will understand his daily debauchery and low prioritization of his monarch leadership responsibilities. King Robert hires a sanitized version of himself, a man that doesn’t whore, booze, or fight in melees. King Robert misjudges Ned’s strong commitment to the values of duty and honor. King Robert doesn’t expect Ned to put his own values into action by engaging in leadership decisions. King Robert doesn’t expect a direct report who will question his authority, who will cross the unspoken bond of their camaraderie, or brotherhood, and make leadership decisions, but this is exactly what happens when Ned issues the order for the arrest of Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.

The two friends make blinded decisions that put them in isolated, vulnerable positions with regards to their domestic enemies. This is compounded when Robert goes radio silent on a hunting trip, leaving Ned, sitting on the Iron Throne, making judgment calls above his pay grade as Hand of the King. Ned listens to the villagers’ stories of marauding attackers, rapine, plunder, and mayhem—then, without a moment of reflection, information gathering, or the consideration of other opinions—issues the proclamation in the King’s name against the apparent rogue terrorist Clegane. Ned’s decisions to strip Ser Gregor of his rank and titles, all his properties, and sentence him to death; followed by Ned’s command to Pycelle to send a raven to Casterly Rock, ordering Tywin Lannister to King’s Landing to explain his possible involvement in the crimes of the Mountain are both leadership decisions true to Ned’s values. It must be satisfying for Ned to do what his values tell him are the right things in a time of crisis, but Ned makes these calls unaware of the broader impact of his decisions. Ned also sees his values through the lens of the Smallfolk. He is derailed by a desire to answer their pleas for protection. This is a noble instinct but pulls him from clear analysis of the challenges in front of him. He sits on the Iron Throne as the direct report to King Robert. He lets his values trigger him into well-intentioned, questionable actions.

Lord Varys hints at the political ramifications of Ned’s rash action. Ned fails to consider his decision from any objective perspective. He fulfills all four of his top values by indicting Clegane, but this satisfaction will be fleeting and will catalyze numerous challenges for himself and his team.

Both King Robert and Lord Stark share the value of honor, yet Ned puts the value above courage and family and Robert puts courage and reward as more important than honor.

Lord Stark takes immediate umbrage at the idea that the King’s Small Council would send an assassin to murder pregnant Daenerys Targaryen. From Ned’s point of view, there is a lack of honor in the Small Council’s proposal. However, if Lord Stark could be persuaded that a Targaryen heir in Essos could lead a Dothraki uprising and an assault on Westeros, his concern for the values of duty and family might cause him to reconsider the responsibility to support the tactic of sending an assassin.

The potential exists for the King and the Hand of the King to find common ground and work to an agreement, but both men get angry when their values are called into question. King Robert takes offense when Ned challenges his courage. The two allies fall into a public, destabilizing argument.


Ned understands that King’s Landing is “a nest of adders,”23 yet he underestimates why he is vulnerable and which people are his biggest threats. In terms of values, Cersei can match Ned for courage. Family is a value that is important to Cersei but not on her husband’s list of top values as shown by his marginalization of and disrespect for his brother Stannis, his limited regard for the children he believes are his own with Cersei, and his complete disregard for his illegitimate children. The children in these two categories don’t appear to hold a priority for King Robert over his own desire to prove his courage and satisfy his desire for physical rewards and camaraderie.

Cersei doesn’t consider her husband the King to be part of her family. This is an important distinction that Ned doesn’t see until it is too late. For Cersei, Robert is just the drunk in the bed who has the power she needs and wants. Cersei doesn’t give a damn for Ned’s interpretation and priority of the personal value of honor. She doesn’t care about his attempt to offer her the chance to save her children from the wrath of her enraged husband. Ned assumes Cersei will crumble in terror and be thankful for his effort to protect her family. He underestimates Cersei’s commitment to her family, her courage, and her belief in her power and superiority. This error in evaluating Cersei puts Ned, his family, his boss, and his allies in a vulnerable position. Ned tells Cersei she should take her children to the Free Cities, the Summer Isles, or the Port of Ibben. “As far as the winds blow.”24 Ned tells Cersei she must escape Robert’s wrath. “The queen stood. ‘And what of my wrath, Lord Stark?’”25

Cersei explains to Ned Stark a fundamental rule of their leadership environment. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”26

I suggest Cersei’s personal values look like this:






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King Robert and Ned Stark stand as powerful reminders that the pressures of day-to-day leadership can trigger conflict between colleagues, even colleagues that have strong mutual experiences, have extensive goodwill, trust each other, and share common goals. If we make assumptions about our personal values, we can commit the same mistakes. The two men lose critical time in assessing risks and developing action-steps to confront and defuse the external threats.

Values are an important instrument in our understanding of ourselves as leaders, but they are subjective. King Robert and Ned Stark were not explicit, or self-reflective, about the values that influenced their decisions and influenced their emotions. Values can be a source of mutual understanding among allies, but these values need to be made explicit through discussion in order to understand what motivates each member of the team.

We need to remind ourselves, under pressure, not to leap at the quick satisfaction of responding to our values without asking ourselves to see the bigger picture. Our values should be used as a map to help propel us forward. It is our job to read the map with care and understand the opportunities and challenges. The rash satisfaction of our values can have horrendous consequences, for us and for those we attempt to serve as leaders.

Our values motivate us and can help us become our “best self” in leadership. Understand your values and also operate with the insight that your values are not the same as other people’s values. Even if you share values with colleagues or competitors, that doesn’t mean you each prioritize your values similarly.

If you can align your values with your leadership role, you will maximize your motivation. If you assume other people need to prioritize their values in the order you prefer, you can blind yourself to other people’s true motivations. As with Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon, this misjudgment can damage potential partnerships and opportunities.

Ned Stark didn’t understand the reality of the relative importance of multiple values, of values hierarchies, and how these differently ordered systems guided the action of the various constituents vying for influence in the Seven Kingdoms during the rule of King Robert Baratheon. Ned Stark assumed that everyone would follow his values, or, if they didn’t follow his values in a transparent manner, they were flawed and not worth trusting. In the end, Ned Stark, serving as direct report to King Robert, made these significant mistakes:

1) He harmed his relationship with King Robert by openly challenging the King’s courage in a public meeting.

2) He turned away an important ally in Lord Varys, mistrusting the Spider because he didn’t appear to represent the same values as Ned Stark.

3) He trusted the promise of a man that mocked him (and mocked his trust) when he conspired with Petyr Baelish.

4) He underestimated the courage, commitment, and cunning of Queen Cersei, assuming she would respond to his knowledge of her relationship with Jaime, take her children, and flee King’s Landing.

5) Because he mismanaged potential allies and partnered with the wrong person, he was unable to protect his daughters in King’s Landing and help them navigate a dangerous environment.

From the beginning, Ned Stark fails to understand the strength and risk inherent in his approach to his values. Because of his blind spots, his leadership fails and he can’t bring any sort of productive gift, wisdom, or boon back to his community. His Leader’s Journey needs to be picked up and carried forward by his family.… Any family members who survive.

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The decision to accept the Call to Adventure means making the choice to step out of the comfort zone of a stable environment on purpose and accept responsibility as a leader by entering a new environment. As the famed mythologist Joseph Campbell writes, “destiny has summoned the hero”27 to leave the comfort of what is known and accept the challenge to work in an environment of potential risk in order to accomplish goals and achieve success. The hero may step into a complicated scenario, unaware of what he or she has triggered.

Joseph Campbell says our call to adventure, the first stage of the Hero’s Journey, often begins with a “blunder,”28 a mistake or stumble into something new that can bring danger and opportunity. The blunder is the trigger, but in that stumble is a chance to overcome and succeed. Ned stumbles forward in a blunder. He doesn’t understand what is going on in King’s Landing. Ned doesn’t trust any of the Lannister family, including Cersei, whom Ned’s sister by marriage, Lysa Arryn, has blamed for the death of her husband. This is smart, but Ned also doesn’t respect Cersei’s courage and her commitment to her personal values, including family, power, and superiority. It is not smart to underestimate your competitors.

When faced with accepting the call to adventure, Ned could have chosen instead to make his role as Warden of the North his priority. He had a job to protect the northern border against various threats to the Seven Kingdoms. But Ned didn’t make that choice and his wife, Catelyn Stark, supported and in fact encouraged Ned’s decision to travel south, adding their daughters, Sansa and Arya, to the entourage with hopes of future rewards.

The second stage of the journey is Refusal of the Call: “The myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.”29

Ned hesitates at King Robert’s offer, evaluating his own responsibilities to protect the north in Winterfell. He also considers the fate of his father and brother who traveled south to King’s Landing many years before and were both murdered by Mad King Aerys, triggering the War of the Usurper, otherwise known as Robert’s Rebellion. Ned hesitates. “My father went south once, to answer the summons of a king. He never came home again.”30 Yet Ned accepts the Call. “‘A different time,’ Maester Luwin said. ‘A different king.’”31 Despite misgivings, Ned passes through the second stage; he considers refusing but accepts the new job in King’s Landing.

The choice Ned made was admirable yet mismanaged. Ned and Catelyn wanted to do what they could to protect their king and their kingdom, but they separated themselves from each other and bifurcated the family, putting everyone in vulnerable positions that didn’t align with their strengths. Ned Stark needed to enter King’s Landing with his eyes open; instead he allowed the immediate, unreflective satisfaction of his values to be his method of personal leadership. He blinded himself. He lashed out, judged and failed at leading himself, his potential allies, and his opportunities. Ned Stark could have pursued his leadership journey by staying in Winterfell and, eventually, confronting the true threat that faced Westeros, or he could have used his values more effectively in King’s Landing. Ned could have acted judiciously instead of judging. He could have invited opportunities rather than limiting his network of resources.

For Ned Stark, the price of his mismanagement was tragic. His Leader’s Journey ended on the King’s Landing chopping block at the Great Sept of Baelor, his head and chest thrust out, his neck naked. Ser Ilyn Payne lifted Ned’s own sword, Ice. The mob shrieked. Ned Stark lost because he believed his values hierarchy would guide the decisions and behavior of his boss, his colleagues, and his competitors. He followed his values without reflection. He was wrong.

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It is important that we, as leaders, search for clarity on the values of our allies and our competitors. What might Ned have learned from Lord Varys if he had taken the time to ask and to listen? What if he had chosen to push King Robert for clarity on what accepting the role in King’s Landing meant in terms of Ned’s job responsibilities? What if Ned had tried to understand Queen Cersei’s motivations before assuming she would shiver in fear at his threat, weep thankfully at his offer to save her children, and flee the capital?

It is important to remember that values are an effective way to understand what drives you, what opportunities might be natural for you to accept, and what opportunities might require you to lead yourself in new ways if you are to succeed. You will find that reflecting on your values will help you understand your past successes and challenges, as well as provide insights on future opportunities and what excites you about them, and how they may offer challenges for you or require additional resources.

Use your values as a map of what is internally important to you, and assess what is important to other people in your professional environment as well. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that your values also motivate your colleagues and competitors. Use the resource of your values, but don’t use the resource blindly.

Also, remember that sometimes people share your values and will support your interests, but we have to see past our simplistic tendency to judge people who are different from us in appearance. The bold, courageous Lord of Winterfell would have benefitted in a significant way from a partnership with the wily, strategic Master of Whisperers, Lord Varys.

Keep your head where it can be a resource, not tarred on a stake above the Red Keep.

Copyright © 2019 by Bruce Craven