Leadership and Fiction with Bruce Craven
Joseph Campbell’s wrote that when we step into a challenge, other people will enter our lives and serve as mentors and guides. Last month, I had such an experience.
For years, I’d ignored the Los Angeles chapter of my alumni organization. LA is just a bit too far from my house… and that traffic. Yet, I’d hit a plateau and thought meeting new people could be fun and good for my podcast. In the first 3 minutes of my first alumni event, the president of the organization had a helpful suggestion for me. He told me that a professor from the business school would be a perfect fit for my leadership podcast. He was right. Professor Bruce Craven had some great insights on leadership and fiction. He’d also published a book about leadership lessons from Game of Thrones and was looking to do interviews about the book. We had a classic hero’s journey moment. This article is a highlight reel of insights from Bruce and Game of Thrones. To see the full episode on video, check out my YouTube Channel.
1. See your work as a spiritual endeavor. Bruce’s book layers his ideas and the methods of the Columbia University Business School over Joseph Campbell’s structure of the hero’s journey. Through this lens, professionals can picture their career as a journey. The path is long and that is liberating. Anyone in a long-term game, say investing, knows how frustrating it is to be judged on a one-year cycle. And if you’re laid off it can feel like the end of the road, even though it’s more like the belly of the whale. Use the long view when you hit career snags.
2. Imagine the worst thing possible. When Bruce helps executives build resilience he has them do a lot of writing, not surprising from an author and poet. Writing a vivid description of the executive’s worst case scenario is a crucial exercise in the program. When you look at your worst fears and address them with the long view of a leader’s journey, you shine a light in a dark place. The process of writing thoughtful prose also elevates the mind above the rumination that we are prone to as humans. Try it. Start with a mild problem in your life and watch how you untangle it with a pen in hand.
3. Choose allies carefully. In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark arrives at King’s Landing and blunders in his choice of allies. This is his downfall. When Bruce challenges executives to write out their worst fears he also guides them through a problem solving process. Many executives realize that they will need more allies to survive a great struggle. When you’re tempted to wall off, remember that you can often do more with good people around you.
4. Adapt your identity. When Bruce showed up at the Columbia Business School, he had a singular identity — I’m a writer. He had long hair long and a goatee. Oxford shoes were not for Bruce, he preferred cowboy boots. When a temporary job filing papers turned into a long-term commitment and a source of meaning in his life, Bruce had to reconsider. He was still writing plenty after work, but he integrated his many identities into something bigger than I’m a writer.
5. Find your bliss. When you embrace your path, doors will open. I’m always shocked by the opportunities that come with a commitment. Finding out about Bruce and then podcasting with him is a perfect example.
6. There’s no opting out of leadership. The premise of Game of Thrones is that you win or die. Technically, the alternative is to opt out, but no one opts out. Opting out may be a kind of death. Shirking responsibility runs counter to the human spirit. We step back into the ring, even when we get knocked down. This is something I’ve wrestled with since retiring from traditional employment.
7. It’s OK to pause. While there’s no opting out of leadership, there’s a case for stepping back. There’s more to life than constant achievement. We must learn to enjoy the process and celebrate the moments along our journey. Celebration may improve the achievement too. I remember when I was in flight school for the Navy my roommate refused to celebrate his successes. He wanted continuous work. Despite the hard work, he failed out.
8. Empathy will keep you alive. Despite many disadvantages, Tyrion Lannister navigates the court in Game of Thrones with great skill. He often asks the people around him an invaluable question — What do you want? When you know the answer, you have a good chance at working well with people. Tyrion’s sense of humor helps too.
9. Realize your impact on your team. Tyrion struggles to empathize with one group — his family. He is so close to them that he forgets to see how he reflects on them. They are obsessed with power and reputation. Tyrion hurts the family image with his drinking and promiscuity, but he doesn’t understand. He disobeys his father and brings a prostitute with him to King’s Landing. This marks the beginning of the end of his relationship with his father.
10. Emotions always matter. Jon Snow decides to let the Wildlings inside his city to prevent them from being turned into an army of zombies. One young man pleads to keep the Wildlings out, sharing the painful story of how Wildlings murdered his entire family. Jon replies with a logical argument. Later, Jon is assassinated. It’s crucial in moments like this to see the enormous emotional undercurrent. Logic is just a cover for emotion. When Jon is resurrected, the Onion Knight inspires Jon with an emotional call to forge a lasting legacy.
11. Guide your team with fiction. Great storytellers know how to touch the hearts of people. Let them inspire you and your team to victory. Tell the stories that align with your values.
For more from Bruce Craven, check out our video interview on my YouTube channel.