Who should rule the Seven Kingdoms? This is the central question of the blockbuster television series Game of Thrones. In this respect, the show presents many useful questions on legitimacy in leadership.
Should the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms be the next in a hereditary line stretching back generations? Or should it be the leader of a people’s rebellion who overthrew and killed the previous, corrupt king? What about that leader’s eldest brother, or his more popular younger brother? How about his illegitimate son? A powerful and well-liked nobleman? Or a barbarian king from parts unknown?
The question of legitimacy is ultimately what makes Game of Thrones so compelling to fans (although many would argue that the dragons and armies of the undead don’t hurt). As the final season reaches its conclusion, it is an opportune moment to ask how the show’s portrayal of the leadership legitimacy dilemma may be instructive for co-operatives.
Researchers at the Canadian Centre for the Study of Co-operatives have developed a three-pillar model of co-operative governance that focuses on strategic interdependencies, cognition, and legitimacy. Over the past few years of teaching this model, I’ve found that co-operators often have the most difficulty grasping the concept of legitimacy, even if it seems the simplest at first glance.
Legitimacy is the key ingredient of governing any kind of organization – from a small-town co-op to the kingdoms of Westeros. No organization can function well without leadership that is recognized as legitimate.
So, what makes a leader legitimate? Is it a certain quality like charisma or intelligence? No. In reality, legitimacy has little to do with the leader and everything to do with those they are leading.
Let’s let the mysterious spy Varys explain:
“In a room sit three great men: a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword [a mercenary, or soldier for hire], a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?”
This passage is taken from George R.R. Martin’s original novel A Clash of Kings and is repeated almost verbatim in the show. It is known as “Varys’ Parable” and it is a perfect illustration of legitimacy. When Varys poses this question to Tyrion Lannister, the endearing, quick-witted, alcoholic dwarf, Tyrion’s response is “I suppose it depends on the sellsword.” Varys agrees, revealing the riddle’s answer: “Power lies where we think it lies.”
The reason I think legitimacy is so hard to understand is that most people get this relationship backwards. Power does not flow from leaders to followers, no matter how intelligent or charismatic they are, or what divine right they claim. Power flows from followers to leaders. The power is created by their belief in the leader. This belief could also be called legitimacy.
Leaders forget that their power is not their own, but gifted to them by their followers – and at their peril. For a King on the iron throne, forgetting the source of his power might lead to a bloody revolt. For a prime minister or president, it could lead to catastrophic defeat at the polls. For a well-entrenched incumbent like Democrat Joe Crowley, it meant losing the democratic primary in the Bronx/Queens neighbourhoods of New York City to a little-known, poorly funded outsider named Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez as documented in a powerful Netflix documentary “Break Down the House.”
For a manager or director of a co-op, forgetting that their power flows inward from the members and not outward toward them can lead to similar disaster. Mistaking the nature of legitimacy can put not only their job in danger but also the sustainability of the co-operative itself.