Game of Thrones Hands Us Lessons on the Chief of Staff Role

By Joy Murphy, Prime Senior Partner

Who will sit on the Iron Throne? A question on the minds of millions of Game of Thrones fans as we await the series conclusion premiering this Sunday. I am an avid fan of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books as well as the HBO show. My own LinkedIn headline reads, “The Tyrion Lannister to your Daenerys Targaryen.” As a former Chief of Staff and Senior Partner at Prime Chief of Staff, I am fascinated by the similarities of the King or Queen’s Hand and the Chief of Staff role.

The Hand of the King/Queen Pin

The Hand of the King/Queen Pin

From the outset, the Hand of the King is paramount to the Game of Thrones franchise. In the first season, we meet Eddard “Ned” Stark, an old friend of the current King, Robert Baratheon. Robert travels to Ned’s home to ask, in a near command-like request, that Ned leave his family, homeland, and governance duties in the north to join Robert in the ruling city of Westeros, serving as Hand of the King, saying, “Ned, I need you.” This moment of vulnerability from King Robert, and the immediate response from Ned, bowing and expressing the honor, demonstrates the gravitas of the position.

Robert goes on to tell Ned, “We were meant to rule together.” It is at this time we truly see the Hand’s partnership with the King—someone acting in his stead and working side-by-side toward a common goal. Very similar to a modern-day Chief of Staff.

Throughout the Game of Thrones series and in the A Song of Ice and Fire books, there are lessons from the Hand applicable for anyone in or considering the Chief of Staff role.

While a Hand’s background varies, their loyalty to the Leader is constant.

Going back to the very first king of Westeros, Aegon the Conquer, all the way to Jon Snow, King of the North, we see that each King chooses a Hand based on their own preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and in some cases, simply by those who they trust the most. There is no line of succession for the role of the Hand.

King Aegon chose a battle warrior, Orys Baratheon, who helped him conquer the seven kingdoms to create Westeros, naming him Hand saying, “my shield, my stalwart, my strong right hand.”

Daenerys Targaryen chose Tyrion Lannister, an outcast from an enemy family and the son of her father’s Hand, Ser Tywin Lannister.

Jon Snow, or Aegon Targaryen as we now know him, chose Ser Davos Seaworth, a man he barely knew, but served on his behalf, with a military background and prior experience as Hand to the King Stannis Baratheon.

In these cases, there is no clear path to be appointed Hand—much like we see with the Chief of Staff role. Each leader and leadership team have unique challenges and appreciate varying facets of a candidate’s profile. Additionally, the common thread that weaves each Hand together is also similar to that of the Chief of Staff—you must to be in ‘The Great Game.’ You must work alongside your leader and organization, aligning to their objectives and mission in order to win.

One’s own character and leadership cannot be sacrificed, even as a Hand.

Loyalty, integrity, and commitment to good are all characteristics that come to mind when we think of Ned Stark. Throughout the first season of the show, we see those qualities tested, ultimately coming to a head when he resigns as Hand to his best friend King Robert when Robert demands he lead a charge to kill Daenerys Targaryen—a potential rightful heir to the throne as the daughter of King Aerys II, the king who Robert usurped. Ned did not see Daenerys as an immediate threat, nor did he believe in killing a young woman. We now also know that Ned was protecting another descendant of King Aerys II, Jon Snow.

This issue ultimately brought Ned to a decision to choose his own morals and character over the King’s directive. There were certainly other turbulent times during his tenure as Hand where Ned had to consider his own values and where to make concessions.

The role of the Chief of Staff is not for the faint of heart, regardless of industry, company size, executive, or organizational goals. Accepting a Chief of Staff role in many ways can feel like a duty, a deep responsibility to uphold a greater purpose. This duty means holding a leader accountable to their priorities, ensuring alignment between the leader and the broader organization, and knowing when to pushback when a lot is at stake.

It is said in the World of Ice and Fire history, “What the king dreams, the Hand of the King builds.” From Ned Stark to Ser Davos Seaworth and Tyrion Lannister, I think we are in store for the Hand to carry key storylines in this final chapter of the Game of Thrones. Who will sit on the Iron Throne and who will be by their side? We will have these answers in six weeks. Who will be the next great Chief of Staff and what will they help build? That is a question I am much more eager to have answered.