On International Women’s Day: Lessons from the Powerful Women of Game of Thrones

March 7, 2019

Sansa Stark

March 8 is International Women’s Day. This global holiday features events which highlight the success and progress of women but also compel us to recognize that true equality remains far in the distance. The 2019 campaign theme of International Women’s Day, #BalanceforBetter, is clarified in the official statement, we notice its absence and celebrate its presence.

Next month there’s another event which showcases strong women – the final season of HBO’s, “Game of Thrones.” For those unfamiliar, the women who live in the perilous land of Westeros endure discrimination and disregard at every turn. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous quote, “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” has literal resonance in the treacherous land of the seven kingdoms.

What these women of “Game of Thrones” seek is not balance. It’s air. It’s options. It’s freedom. In pursuit of such they have developed specific skills which have contributed to their achievements and (without question) served to keep them among the living.

Understanding the traits they’ve embraced and how these have positioned our heroines to thrive in this dark and unforgiving land seems a worthy exercise. So, let’s nudge it closer to home and assess the value of these skills in the context of sales. Mainly, let’s examine their ability to measure and deploy talent, the discipline to develop a concrete plan, and the willingness to continue learning.

Cersei Lannister (Reigning Queen of Westeros)

Cersei is a malevolent queen. Born to great privilege, she was pre-ordained to rule, and her lot has been more accommodating than most. Still, the royal title has not shielded her from institutional sexism. She loses power when her young, unprepared sons are, one after the other, ordained as king. But they die ugly, and the one good quality she holds — that of a loving mother — dies with them. Following their deaths, she reasserts herself as ruler and sets about making it stick.

In a constant search for allies, Cersei is skilled at recognizing talent and the lack of it in others. She knows what those around her can and will do, and what they are incapable of. Take the example of former Maester Qyburn. This medical and scientific genius was booted from the Citadel (where maesters are trained) for conducting unethical experiments on living subjects, among other things. Upon realizing his keen scientific acumen and proven immorality, Cersei draws him into her service where he masterminds many horrific assignments on her behalf. Ultimately, Qyburn is named Hand of the Queen, her chief advisor. He was the perfect candidate with a most imperfect resume.

In sales, knowing what the people on the other side of your deal are capable of is fundamental to winning. Is your professed champion a true champion or just paying lip service? Does he have the influence to lead others to stand for your solution? Applying Cersei’s ability to assess skills and demeanor, internally as well as with clients, is an absolute must for sellers.

Arya Stark of Winterfell

Arya Stark is the quintessential tomboy. Being forced to sit in a pretty dress while learning to embroider flies in the face of her deepest desires. She wants to shoot arrows, wield a sword, and become a Westorosi knight. When pushed to live inside the norms of being a lady from a great house, Arya rebels.

As luck would have it, one day she finds her brother’s bow lying on the ground with a single arrow snared in the target. With no one watching, she shoots the arrow towards the mark over and over. Since there is only one arrow, with each shot she must walk to retrieve it and back to shoot again. Finally, after 40, 60 or 100 draws of the bow, the arrow pierces the bull's eye.

At once, Arya hears a sharp, slow clap and spins to find the source. It’s her father, Lord Eddard Stark, watching from high on the bridge. He doesn’t say a word, just applauds to reveal his delight in her determination. That small, unforgettable show of support detonated the fire inside her and she never looked back.

Soon after, Lord Stark is executed by Cersei’s son, and Arya escapes being captured and killed. So begins her list of those she plans to execute, those who have visited unimaginable suffering on her family. Her journey back home (and to herself) is long and arduous, but her mission becomes seared in her mind. As her list grows, she recites the offenders’ names each night before sleeping, as not to forget a single one.

Over time Arya becomes a master assassin and kills many on her list. She was propelled to success by two qualities; the determination to remain true to herself and to carry out her mission. It’s important to note, the method to her mission wasn’t cast in stone. It was fluid, adaptable. She changed course along the way depending upon the circumstances.

In sales, naming a mission and crafting a plan for success is paramount; whether it be a territory plan, an account plan or strategy for a specific deal. Keeping that mission top-of-mind, as Arya did, is the right tactic for advancement. It helps to know what the next step is and when best to take it. Still, every plan must have room to adjust to changing conditions. In sales, as in Westeros, things shift quickly. Altering the plan to address the variations is the path that leads to triumph.

Sansa Stark of Winterfell

When we first meet her, Sansa is a sullen, gullible teenager anxious to see the world. She leaves Winterfell for an arranged marriage to Joffrey Lannister, Cersei’s son, the crown prince. Since he’s young, handsome and powerful, Sansa imagines that marriage to the prince will provide the life she dreams about. How exciting to live as a privileged princess (and ultimate queen) in the bustling capital of King’s Landing, far from the frozen north. To a bored and naive young girl, this future is alluring.

But the road to King’s Landing is marked with grim events that foreshadow the tragedies to come. They begin with the killing of her beloved direwolf, Lady. From there, it all goes sideways. Joffrey turns out to be more sadistic  and demented than his vile mother. Sansa’s father is beheaded before her eyes. Arya, her little sister, goes missing. And Sansa becomes a hostage in the palace with seemingly no one on her side.

Then, out of nowhere, Lord Baelish, a low-born climber who’s reached the heights of courtly life as Cersei’s Master of Coin, helps her escape. Sansa is relieved, but just for a time. Baelish betrays her, arranging a betrothal to another tyrant who brutalizes her in ways we won’t discuss in a corporate blog such as this

But her misery makes her strong. The arc of Sansa’s evolution reaches farther than any other in this woeful land, man or woman. Through the chaos and trauma, Sansa watched and listened. She paid attention to what was going on around her, to what people said and how they behaved. Her steely observation and internal note-taking made all the difference. Sansa learned by experience. She used those teachings, one by one, rising from political pawn to defeat her enemies and find her way home as lady of the castle. Just before she gave the order to execute  Lord Baelish, she said, “Thank you, Lord Baelish, for your many lessons. I will never forget them.”

It’s undeniable that negative experiences can foster deep learning. But in sales, it’s as important to covet a willingness to learn when sales are soaring. No matter how adept we become at qualifying, presenting the value of a solution, or negotiating price; we should constantly seek learning. Understanding tiny things, like how to twist a phrase, how to interpret some aspect of a client’s body language, or the best way to handle an objection can propel a sales cycle or drag it to an abrupt ending.

There’s much to glean from the conflicts and triumphs in the lives of the powerful women of Westeros. Including but not limited to Cersei’s ability to  assess talent and deploy it; Arya’s unwavering commitment to her mission and the corresponding plan; and Sansa’s quiet quest for learning.

Whether your fortune is hidden beneath a mammoth stone castle in the distant land of Westeros or nestled in your 2019 book of business, adding these skills to your arsenal will never betray you.

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