Leadership

In the 'Game of Thrones' episode 'Beyond the Wall,' the feared and the fearless have the power

Helen Sloan | HBO

All leaders feel fear. The most successful just know how to manage it, says Adam Grant, a professor at top-tier business school Wharton. That doesn't mean avoiding or ignoring it, he says: "It's much more effective to embrace it and try to figure out."

Show creators D. B. Weiss and David Benioff explore fear on this week's episode of HBO's "Game of Thrones."

Tyrion Lannister urges Daenerys Targaryen, for instance, not to use it as a means to gain power. Arya Stark, under the corruptive influence of Littlefinger, instills fear into her sister Sansa, Jon Snow's temporary replacement as ruler in the North. And Jon, himself, exhibits a resilience to fear in his willingness to risk his own life for the greater good — the cause against the army of the dead.

Jon Snow

His united band of fan favorites are, like Jon, among the most fearless characters throughout the fictional universe. And they go to its most harrowing place — "Beyond the Wall." They successfully retrieve a wight, or an animated corpse, to use as evidence for their cause against the Night King during their next negotiation with Cersei Lannister.

But they don't complete the mission without consequence. Thoros of Myr, who is mauled by a dead bear in the blinding snow, doesn't make it back to Eastwatch. Tormund Giantsbane, in an unusual moment of weakness, is almost devoured by the wights before the Hound comes to his rescue.

Source: HBO

For a moment, things seem hopeless. The men are outnumbered and totally surrounded. Jon stops fighting. Time slows. He looks afraid. But then Daenerys arrives on the back of her dragon to rescue them. Just as it appears viewers are in for another one-sided Loot Train Battle repeat, the Night King spears down one of Daenerys' dragons, confirming the arrival of the long-anticipated, dreadful Zombie Dragon Scenario.

When Jon sees the Night King preparing another spear, he selflessly yells for the Dragon Queen and his men to fly off without him. A moment later, he is alone, battered and standing ready to fight.

Jon's greatest weapon is his goodness. It outweighs any fear. He is willing to sacrifice for his team, even if that sacrifice is himself.

"We can keep others alive," Beric Dondarrion tells him earlier on their journey, as they discuss the purposes of their resurrections. "We can defend those who can't defend themselves."

He is rewarded for his selflessness, of course, and survives thanks to a last-minute surprise rescue from his half-dead uncle Benjen.

Daenerys from Game of Thrones.
Source: HBO
Daenerys from Game of Thrones.

Daenerys Targaryen

"Yes, you need to inspire a degree of fear," Tyrion tells his queen, "but fear is all Cersei has." It was all Joffrey and Tywin Lannister had too. "It makes their power brittle, because everyone beneath them wants to see them dead."

Tyrion once again laments how Daenerys executed Randyl and Dickon Tarly after the Loot Train Battle, and warns her about repeating the brutality of her ancestors and his sister Cersei.

Some leaders use fear to demand respect, but according to mental coach Graham Betchart, it is much more effective to use compassion and empathy. Employees motivated by fear work to avoid mistakes, and he tells CNBC Make It: "There's nothing worse for a team than someone afraid to make a mistake."

When the message from Gendry Baratheon reaches Dragonstone requesting Daenerys' help, Tyrion urges her to stay. "The most important person in the world can't fly off to the most dangerous place in the world," he says, adding: "You can't break the wheel when you're dead."

He is referring to the wheel of power that her own ancestor Aegon Targaryen built, which crushes anyone in the way and feeds power to those who are already powerful.

Tyrion knows that offering a dissenting opinion allows for optimal decision making. If Daenerys had listened to him, Jon and the others would be dead, but she would have three dragons.

The loss cuts deep, as eye brows had already been raised at the premise of the expedition to retrieve a wight. Can Cersei be motivated by fear? Considering her unreliability, will she agree to a tentative alliance with her enemies when she sees the wight?

Firsthand exposure to the army of the dead does seem to have a significant effect on Daenerys. When Jon, lying safely on her ship apologizes for ever having gone out there, she replies, teary-eyed, "You have to see it to know. Now I know."

She vows to help Jon defeat the Night King. Tyrion can expect she won't be invoking fear south of the wall, at least for the time being.

Sansa Stark

"Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things," Sansa tells Ayra, as tension grows between the sisters in Winterfell.

"Sometimes fear makes them do unfortunate things," she replies, "I'll go with anger."

Littlefinger successfully pits the two against one another. Arya finds Sansa's old letter requesting that family surrender to the Lannisters from a time when Joffrey was her betrothed.

"What would little Lyanna Mormont say?" asks Arya, threatening to show the 11-year-old northern Lady. "She's younger than you were when you wrote this."

When Sansa goes looking for the incriminating letter later in the episode, she stumbles upon Arya's bag of masks instead. Arya finds her and brandishes her dagger.

Source: HBO

She is acting more cold-blooded than viewers have ever seen, and Sansa is visibly disturbed. She is afraid, an unattractive quality in any leader and one that can cloud judgment.

In her paranoia, she sends Brienne of Tarth, who is sworn to protect both her and her sister, to King's Landing. Brienne pleads with her to stay, warning her that Littlefinger is dangerous. Sansa, however, doesn't listen.

It's a shame for Sansa that Jon appears to be heading back to Dragonstone with Daenerys rather than back to Winterfell. The North needs strong leadership. Now that the Night King is equipped with his own dragon, each of the show's (breathing) characters has more reason than ever to be afraid.

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