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Game of Thrones and the power of stories

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Game of Thrones HBO show featuring Sean Bean, seen here with sword, sitting on throne (Credit: Game of Thrones via HBO)

Game of Thrones is one of the most wildly popular television shows running. The HBO hit is included in what many have dubbed the (new) golden age of television. Standing alongside other popular shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and True Detective, Game of Thrones continues to hold audiences attention with its mix of complex storytelling, graphic violence, and visual beauty. David Benioff summed up Game of Thrones well by describing it as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth”.

Pundits have said that the reason these TV shows are so popular is that they offer a tantalizing form of escapism. They portray intricate plots, set in mysterious and stunning locations, with nuanced, multi-faceted characters. I think these pundits are right, but escapism has always been a reason why people turn to stories, so what makes these new TV shows such a powerful draw to our contemporary world?

I think one of the reasons these shows are so powerful is that they offer an alternate world for people to invest in. The human heart has not changed much over time. We all want to find significance and meaning. However, only recently have we as a society wholeheartedly lost faith in our common institutions. These institutions were for a long time the places we invested our emotional, mental, and physical energy. As we have seen failure after failure with our institutions, though, an entire generation has grown up lacking confidence in institutions.

In the midst of our distrust of institutions, though, our hearts still have the same desire to be a part of stories that are bigger than ourselves. Whereas in the past we invested deeply in institutions and things outside ourselves, our current megalomaniacal, self-obsessed culture has encouraged us to transfer our time, attention and caring to the only thing we do trust: ourselves and our own personal entertainment.

We have a deep desire to invest our time, attention, and energy into things that matter, but when as a culture we are confused about what matters, it’s easier to turn to fantasy worlds to satisfy these desires.

As leaders there is a powerful lesson to learn from all of this. People still have deep aspirations to contribute to meaningful, lasting work, but they need to know how they can contribute and how their contribution helps bring about something that truly lasts.

James Kouzes & Barry Posner, in The Leadership Challenge, say that “exemplary leaders don’t impose their visions of the future on people; they liberate the vision that’s already stirring in their constituents. They awaken dreams, breathe life into them, and arouse the belief that people can achieve something grand.”

As a leader, how are you helping those who are under your care understand how they relate to your company’s mission? Are you actively taking time to help them grow? Do you yourself even believe in your company’s mission?

The golden age of television reveals that at our core we are people who love stories. We want to invest ourselves into things that last, but we just aren’t sure where those things might be. All we see is brokenness: in our families, in our government, in our churches, in our corporate environment.

As leaders, we need to remind others what those meaningful things are and help them invest there. We need to remind them that families, organizations, civic life, and the Church are all still worth our commitment. We need to show them “how their long term interests can be realized by enlisting in a common vision.” (Kouzes & Posner)

Whatever field you are in, never underestimate how important storytelling is in bringing people together around a shared vision. Distill what you are doing into a story of a changed life, however big or small that change might be. Then help all employees, at every level of the organization, understand how their actions and responsibilities can help achieve that changed life.