I am one of the 14 million-plus Game of Thrones fans. I have read four out of the five books and have watched every episode of the five-season HBO series. You might say I’m a little obsessed.
The reason I started watching the show is because one of my best friends was so passionate about one particular character who, she said, reminded her of me. My friend told me how this character was a young girl who at first was meek, lacked self-esteem, and was sold into marriage—but who developed into a strong woman with a drive to ensure that people were treated equally. The character she was describing: Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke on the show).
I was so intrigued by the story of this one character that I immediately began catching up on the first season and have been hooked ever since. As I’ve watched through the years, I’ve marveled at how Daenerys (“Dany”) has developed into a great leader. I cheered her on as she shifted the power in her marriage from being a slave to her husband, Khal Drogo, to being the love of his life. I celebrated with her as her abusive brother met his match when her husband literally “gave him his gold crown” by pouring hot gold over his entire body. And I cried with her when she lost her “sun and stars”—her husband—and walked out of the funeral pyre with her dragon children on her shoulders. At that moment, I knew she had emerged a different woman. She was destined to be a great leader.
Dany has a strong desire to ensure that no one will be treated as she was for most of her life. She abhors slavery and is determined to set everyone in chains free. She wants people to be empowered.
What Dany does not seem to understand, however, is that empowerment is not just about setting people free. There is a technique and an art to giving people the freedom to act independently. This means that for most people, especially those who have never been given the opportunity to act autonomously in the past, empowerment requires not only freedom but also leadership and direction.
In order to empower people as a leader, you must do three things:
#1: Foster an empowerment mindset.
Empowerment is a two-way street. Leaders must be willing to trust, and their people must be willing to take on the responsibility they delegate to them. When Dany frees the slaves in Slaver’s Bay there is unrest and fighting amongst the people; she is trying to do the right thing, but none of the parties involved are ready for that change, so everything devolves into chaos. Leaders must ensure that their teams want to take on responsibility and are prepared to do so before just “setting them free.”
#2: Set boundaries and expectations.
In her innocence, Dany thinks that setting the slaves in Slaver’s Bay free is an act of compassion and justice that will stand on its own. She’s not prepared for the uncertainty the slaves feel regarding what to do next, or for the upheaval from the former slave masters. I felt for her as I watched her disappointment and frustration with everyone’s reactions to the new world order she’s created, because I see the same dynamic in the business world with leaders who try to empower their teams but provide little to no direction. The result is always civil unrest and sometimes revolt, just like in Game of Thrones. Empowerment requires letting people know what you expect of them. What outcomes do you want to achieve? What do you expect of their behaviors and attitudes? What’s in it for them? In her case, Dany succeeds in empowering the Unsullied, an army of slaves who she freed, because she lets them know she wants them to fight for and protect her, but also makes it clear that they can choose to leave if they don’t want to join her.
#3: Coach along the way.
Empowerment is not a one-time deal. You must continue to offer guidance and support throughout the process. Dany discovers this need as she witnesses lines of hundreds of masters and former slaves lining up to receive her counsel. I loved watching her sit patiently to listen to each request and to offer her guidance as needed. She does her best to ask questions and encourage individuals to make their own choices rather than dictating her desires; it’s only when she encounters an individual who does not want to—or cannot—make a decision that she offers them her own solutions.
Empowerment is not just about setting people free; it requires the proper mix of empowering mindsets, setting expectations and boundaries, and coaching along the way to make it successful. But empowerment is an incredible leadership tool—and when wielded properly, it can be transformative for both leaders and the people following them.