*This post contains mild spoilers for season 4 of Game of Thrones*
We’ll never come to the end of understanding leadership, in part because one truth always has a paradoxical counterpart.
Good leaders are humble. Good leaders know how to take feedback. Good leaders know their limitations. Good leaders know how to admit they are wrong, and to acknowledge the uncertainty of situations. The better the leader, in fact, the more likely they will feel that their mantle of leadership doesn’t rightly belong to them. They will realize that leadership is a role, not an identity, and they may feel like a poor actor.
Many leaders can do all these things well without being great leaders. They can have the wisdom to acknowledge complexity and their own limitations, but they can let that wisdom freeze them. They can be humble, but that humility can make them fearful. They can let a concern with being seen as wise keep them from exercising their responsibility to decide.
There’s some wild card element to great leaders that from time to time enables them to not give a damn about the consequences of choosing wrongly. It looks like folly, but it is its own kind of wisdom.
In this scene from Game of Thrones season 4. The Night’s Watch is facing down an impending attack, and acting commander Alliser Thorne realizes he made a a decision which will cost the defending force:
Thorne (who otherwise is not an admirable leader) does get one thing right – he 1) acknowledges his failure and 2) still doesn’t question himself. In his epic quote, he explains the consequences of doing the first without the second:
“Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for the clever little twats, for everyone.”
Leaders like Thorne don’t let a failure hurt the sense of resolve they put behind decisions. It’s a bit crazy, but it actually works. There’s a kind of leap of faith involved. You must tolerate every doubt. You must take all feedback. But in the end you cannot defer a decision. You must act.
Seen like this, leadership is a numbers game. You keep deciding, and you keep deciding to decide (this is the hard part), and over time (if you’re wise) you’ll tend to make more good decisions than bad. But you must recognize that you will make bad decisions. Bad decisions are a feature of the job. If you recognize that, you won’t have to let them freeze you. And you must not let that freeze you. All the “clever little twats” (external critics and internal voices) will go on, but you will have done your job for them and for you.