Game of Thrones Conquers the Classroom

When Bruce Craven introduced Game of Thrones into the class Leadership Through Fiction, students erupted into applause.

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Video produced by Laura Lechner

Winter has come to Columbia Business School.

Dragons are flying, swordsmen are dueling, and kingdoms are crumbling inside Uris Hall, where the class Leadership Through Fiction is discussing management takeaways from the mega-hit series Game of Thrones.

“A lot of fiction has this capacity of being mined for the lessons we can extract from it,” says Bruce Craven, adjunct associate professor and creator of the course. “What Game of Thrones brings, I think, is very high stakes for the characters.”

Craven has an authoritative knowledge of the show as author of Win or Die: Leadership Lessons from Game of Thrones, which is the culmination of his four-year journey into the world of ice and fire through watching the series several times and reading the epic fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. With HBO’s blockbuster series about to launch its eighth and final season, Craven’s class is attracting heightened attention as fans seek to turn binge-watching into an educational experience.

Craven says his MBA and Executive MBA students erupted into applause when he first introduced Game of Thrones into class.

“There’s a lot of envy that I get to sit in a class and talk about leadership principles with this topic in mind,” says William Gangware ’19, who recently took the block-week course.

Columbia is not the first school to bring Game of Thrones into the classroom. Indiana University has a class called From Westeros to Wall Street, where students glean business lessons and writing skills from the show; Harvard Business School Online has highlighted management tips from the show; and a researcher from Cass Business School in London has dissected GoT’s psychological impact on viewers. Craven’s course, uniquely, views Game of Thrones through the lens of management taught at Columbia. (See related article about GoT-inspired management insights from faculty.)

Emotional Intelligence

During a recent session of Leadership Through Fiction, Craven led a classroom of MBAs—the majority of them women—in discussing what the character Daenerys Targaryen learned in the first season of Game of Thrones. “She becomes less na├»ve,” said one student. “She faced an all-or-nothing moment,” said another. “She’s building a brand, isn’t she?” suggested Craven.

Students then divided into small groups to discuss what character they most identified with in leadership—and there were a lot of characters to choose from. The show’s sometimes-overwhelming number of plotlines also provides a rich tapestry of characters that lends well to analysis, says Craven.

As these characters are thrust into confusing social and political situations surrounded by people with competing values and aims, each responds differently. The warden of the north, Ned Stark, must identify the subjectivity of his personal values if he is to survive the political intrigue of King’s Landing; the commander of the Knight’s Watch, Jon Snow, must be persuasive if he is to band his fighters around a common cause; the dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen, must seize control and be careful who she trusts.

“Emotional intelligence is something that drives the characters that overcome great odds and build followership,” says Craven, who is also director of Executive Education’s Advanced Management Program. “Their ability to be self-aware, their ability to manage themselves, their ability to build social relationships and manage those relationships. They go against incredible odds and I think the students in Leadership Through Fiction recognize, ‘Hey, that applies to me, too.’”

For the business student, a major takeaway is that “you have a capacity to control and lead yourself—that is larger than you probably understand,” says Craven. “You don’t have to be shifting and swaying and constantly reactive. You can be proactive.”

‘I see fiction in a new way’

This take-charge attitude is seen, for example, in the character of Tyrion Lannister, who makes up for his small stature with an oversized intellect, according to Gangware, the MBA candidate. “He is able to understand others’ motivations and persuade people to do what he wants, and often do the right thing by appealing to their prejudices, by appealing to their interests, and in getting people to work together,” says Gangware.

Gangware said he’ll bring these lessons when he goes into business consulting. “Probably the biggest takeaway [from the class] is self-reflection can be super valuable to think about what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and how to be purposeful at improving yourself as a leader and as a colleague.”

Lin Chen ’19 says she’ll also take lessons from the class into her personal life and career.

“The main takeaway I had for myself is just to be a little bit more observant and action-oriented,” says Chen. “I’m going into consulting, which I find to be a very relationship-driven role. This class taught me to value other people’s perspectives and think about how I can appeal to that and build loyalty around my coworkers and then generate benefits for our clients.”

While Game of Thrones consumes a significant portion of class time, Craven brings other works of fiction and non-fiction in for analysis. The course starts with The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, then moves to the novels What Makes Sammy Run? and Revolutionary Road, from which students act a scene. After two all-day sessions on GoT, the course finishes with T.C. Boyle’s novel When the Killing’s Done. Shorter readings from Harvard Business Review and other texts are incorporated throughout the class.

“From the moment I started teaching this class, students would come to me and say, ‘I see fiction in a new way. I see parallels to my life and to my challenges that I wasn’t recognizing before,’” says Craven, who has an M.F.A in writing from Columbia’s School of the Fine Arts. “Students recognize that their life is a story and they’re shaping that story to some degree as they accept challenges, as they decide what’s important to them, as they manage and lead themselves. And they’re using that story as they convey what’s important to them about leadership and what they stand for as a leader.”

Craven is conducting a free Executive Education webinar on March 19 about leadership lessons from Game of Thrones. Sign up to participate.

About the researcher

Bruce Craven

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty.  His roles include running executive education programs and teaching. He...

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