SPOILER ALERT:  IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST SEASON OF GAME OF THRONES—AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS—DON’T READ THIS BLOG POST! 

Last week, more than a million people signed a petition demanding a re-do of the entire final season of the wildly popular Game of Thrones TV series.  That’s more than the populations of Montana, Delaware, Rhode Island and five other states in the U.S.; more people than live in Iceland, Fiji or Luxembourg (and several hundred other countries as well). 

Why so much energy and outrage about a TV show?  There were hundreds of reasons cited via media channels, blog posts, comment threads and discussion websites, but it all boiled down to one core issue:

Game of Thrones jumped the archetype.

Archetypes are narrative grooves that are deeply etched into the human unconscious because they reflect and reinforce universal human expectations and needs.  Archetypal story lines are repeated over and over again in the tales that move people most, feature almost inevitable outcomes, and tap into motivational patterns that help us see and make meaning of what’s going on inside and around us.  Archetypal dissonance occurs when a narrative disrupts those patterns in seemingly meaningless ways—either in how it’s told or how it ends.  Game of Thrones ultimately upset the apple cart on both fronts.

Stories about power (the Ruler archetype), vision (the Magician archetype) and connection (the Lover archetype) are among the most potent of the archetypal story lines. Game of Thrones was largely a Ruler story, but it dabbled in the other themes as well, to very mixed results—and ultimately didn’t leave a clear or compelling message about its core premise.  That left a lot of questions about what kind of story people had invested in for nearly a decade.  Was it a cautionary tale?  A morality play?  A romantic tragedy?  And what, in the end, actually mattered about it?

I feel like three things happened in Game of Thrones that led to the outrage:

  • The show became plot driven instead of character driven. The show runners short circuited the storytelling in favor of plot machinations, leaving it very unclear what was motivating many of the main characters (or why those motivations changed so quickly and so decisively).  That’s especially true when it comes to Queen Daenerys, whose absolute corruption may have been foreshadowed but unfolded in a whiplash time frame.  Effective story tellers can subvert traditional narrative themes, but not in a way that wipes out most of the previous character development and almost all of the values that shaped our understanding of them. 
  • The ending mixed up the archetypes. In what had previously been a Ruler story line, the ending was essentially about a Magician gaining the power (but without a real Magician payoff).  The seer became the king—but despite having magical powers, Bran didn’t convey any vision for moving a kingdom forward to go along with them.  His ascension didn’t feel earned, either through action or through an empowering aspiration that others seemed likely to follow. 
  • The ending wasn’t really right for our times.  The story had the look of medieval times, but it was a fantasy not entirely bound by the constructs of any specific period.  Yes, it ultimately sowed the idea that a move away from monarchs towards a kind of democracy is the right direction—but its end note involved depicting its strongest female leader as rapidly succumbing to drunken power, and relegated the other to running a subsidiary rather than the whole enterprise.  Maybe not the best look for 2019? 

So, what does any of this have to do with workplace leadership, culture building or branding?  Quite a lot, actually.  People and organizations make these same kinds of mistakes all the time.  So here are some key take-aways for leaders from the Game of Thrones uproar: 

  • Take purposeful action and act from authentic motivation.  There’s a lot of propulsive action in organizations these days (like in the final episodes of Game of Thrones), and much of it is more plot driven than character driven.  Driving blindly toward results instead of purpose or mission is a great example of that.  In that case, motivation can seem very shallow to others (and certainly not empowering or engaging enough to prompt genuine commitment and contribution). 
  • Take the time to see and understand who you really are (and who your organization is)—and live by that.  This will make your authentic motivational drivers very clear—and is far more likely to shape your success than drive without any particular purpose to propel it.  It also builds trust because others know what to expect and can ultimately count on it when you stay the course.
  • Convey your values and your vision.  People want to know where you’re going and why.  They want to know what you stand for and care about.  In Game of Thrones, Bran sees the future but doesn’t share anything particularly meaningful about it or what it might mean.  We also don’t really know what values will shape his actions.  Values provide the inspiration and the guard rails for moving forward (they keep you on purpose and on brand while shaping a culture that cares to do so).
  • Tell a coherent, contemporary story.  It’s hard to build internal or external brand loyalty when your story line shifts too often—there’s nothing substantive enough to sustain engagement.  The expression of it is another matter, though.  You can live out a Ruler story line (or any other) for decades, but you should refresh how the story is told much more frequently based on what’s going on in your market, in the culture, and—most importantly—in hearts and minds. 

You don’t have to take the lessons of Game of Thrones to enterprise heart.  Then again, who wants the entire population of Fiji turning against you? 


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