6 Academic Leadership Lessons from Jon Snow

How do we ensure better career outcomes than the outgoing Lord Commander?

June 17, 2015

For the three people on the planet who care about Game of Thrones, but who have not yet watched Sunday’s season 5 finale, I’ll attempt to refrain from spoiling anything.

Let’s just say that if Jon Snow had had the title of Academic Director, rather than that of Lord Commander, it wold be fair to say that his position was not renewed.

For all of us in academia occupying similar leadership roles as Jon Snow, what lessons can we draw from Snow’s career setback?


Lesson 1 - Be Careful When Choosing to Let the Wildlings Through Our Gates:

Snow’s colleagues on the Night’s Watch, the colleagues who ultimately terminated his contract, were unhappy with the Lord Commander’s leadership decision to invite the Wildlings through the gates of Castle Black. Jon Snow had good reasons to bring the Wildlings into Castle Black. With Winter coming, the Night’s Watch needed the help of the Wildlings to fight the undead White Walkers.

What Wildlings have you let through your gates? Online learning? Competency-based credentials? MOOCs?

What are your White Walkers? Budget shortfalls? Enrollment crunches? Shifting demographics? New competitors?


Lesson 2 - Courage and Vision Are Not Always Enough:

It is clear to everyone that Jon Snow was a courageous and visionary leader. He saw that the Night’s Watch could not continue with the status quo. New alliances, new practices, and new methods needed to be employed if the Brotherhood had any chance against the forces arrayed against it.

But courage and visionary leadership proved to be not enough. Jon Snow would have been better off with a diverse set of counselors and advisors. A more inclusive inner circle, made up of colleagues who perhaps did not share all of Snow’s ideas, may have allowed Snow to alter his tactics while still driving towards his ultimate strategic vision.


Lesson 3 - Tradition Can Be Stronger Than We Realize:

When the Night’s Watch let Jon Snow go, they all repeated the phrase “For the Watch.”

When we are terminated from our role, the keepers of the status quo will be saying “For the Institution.”

What Snow did not adequately credit is that that status quo persists, because that status quo works for many people in the organization. Colleges, like the Brotherhood of the Night’s Watch, are built not to change. Our traditions protect us against fads and popular ideas. Tradition serves a very useful and important purpose, even if we feel that tradition holds back necessary innovation.

We should be very careful to respect and honor tradition as we also push for change.


Lesson 4 - First, Build Coalitions:

Only part of the job of a successful leader is the ability to articulate a strong vision for the future. Jon Snow clearly saw the future (an army of undead White Walkers coming over the Wall), and was willing to change centuries of best practices in order to be ready.

What Jon Snow failed to do is build an effective coalition for change. He did not take enough time to listen. He failed to do the hard work of understanding the interests of his stakeholders. This failure to build a coalition ultimately cost him his job.


Lesson 5 - The Careers of Disruptive Innovators Often Don’t End Well:

We tend to think that a willingness to lead disruptive innovations will ultimately work out career wise. We read all those leadership and management books, and buy into the idea that our biggest risk is the failure to take any.

My bet is that Jon Snow also read all the books and articles that we read about disruptive innovation. He saw himself as a disruptive innovator, the leader of non-incremental change. Jon Snow’s career difficulties perhaps should be a lesson to all of us wannabe disrupters.


Lesson 6 - Tall Walls Can Also Keep Out New Ideas:

The Wall at Castle Black is 700 feet high and 300 miles across. Made of solid ice, the Wall is intended to protect the Northern border of the Seven Kingdoms.

The Wall may have been intended to keep invaders out (the Wildlings and the White Walkers in particular). What the Wall also did was keep new ideas out of the Brothers of the Night’s Watch.

Many of us in higher ed build pretty big walls. We do so with good intentions, as we want to preserve what is unique and special about academia. Our walls are not designed to protect us from the undead, but rather from the vagaries of popular thinking, the latest fads, and at least somewhat from short-term market pressures.

Jon Snow tried to breach that Wall with new ideas. He paid the career price for doing so. Perhaps a better understanding and appreciation for the culture that the Wall had created amongst the Brotherhood would have helped Jon Snow lead organizational change.

What do you see as the academic leadership lessons that we can learn from Jon Snow?


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