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
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?”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.
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.