The Manager Who Lost The North

Robb Stark

Few TV characters have had a more prodigious fall from grace than Robb Stark. He’s gone from avenging our beloved Ned as a wunderkind battle commander to making nearly as many critical missteps as someone intentionally trying to fail.

Most of us will never be tasked with leading an army into medieval warfare and certainly never with the threat of dragons on the horizon. However, the lion’s (heh) share of Robb’s poor decisions are actually made away from the battlefield, in the form of reckless management and shortsighted strategic decisions. These are the same sort of problems that normal, non-sword-wielding businesspeople contend with on a day-to-day basis. There’s a surfeit of examples to glean from the series, but here are a few of the most obvious lessons.


Honor Your Partnerships

Midway through season one, Catelyn promises Robb’s hand in marriage to one of the daughters of Walder Frey. In exchange, Frey allows Robb’s army to pass through his lands to gain strategic position, in addition to joining his own soldiers to Robb’s northern host. However, Robb eventually falls for Talisa, marries her, and breaks his word to Lord Frey.

It should really go without saying that if you commit to something with an external party, you have to stick to that commitment, especially if you want to continue doing business with them (or anyone, for that matter). Robb’s actions cause him to lose the respect of many of his men, inspire insubordination, and even cause several of his men to abandon him completely. In the business world, you’ll get all of that, and you’ll get sued. Don’t do it.

Set Your People Up For Success

Let’s get this straight: Ned Stark kidnapped Theon when he was ten and held him hostage for nine years as recompense for his father’s rebellion that he had no part in. The scale of traumatic experiences does not extend far beyond this. And yet, knowing all of this, Robb, the son of the kidnapper, sends Theon back to his father to convince him to fight for Robb and the North. At no point does Robb consider that maybe, just maybe, this is a bad idea. It’s not like Theon is likely to have any thoughts like this, of course:

You know what is like to be told how lucky you are to be someone’s prisoner? To be told how much you owe them? And then go back home to your real father?

And well, we all know what happened after that:

As a manager, you’re responsible for people. That’s it. You have one job. The situations those people are in, the paths they are set down, the resources they have – those are all your responsibilities. You’re supposed to be setting them up for success. When they’re set up for disaster, it’s because you allowed them to be set up for disaster.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Big Picture

Without a doubt, Robb’s biggest mistake as commander is losing sight of the big picture. Robb views war as something that is strictly won or lost on the battlefield i.e. if I win more battles than you, I win the war. War, like business, is never that simple. The only rules of the game are the ones you set; anything you take as a given is, in fact, just one step closer to losing. As Cersei says, you either win or you die. By contrast, Tywin Lannister is constantly orchestrating alliances, marriages, and other machinations to bolster his odds of winning the war.

We see this tendency to locally optimize far too frequently in business: floppy disk manufacturers fight tooth and nail to create the best floppy disk. Then all of a sudden the CD-ROM company comes out and turns the industry upside down. Oh snap! Shit just got real. And yet, in spite of the biting reality of the market, floppy disk manufacturers keep a laser sharp focus on building better floppy disks, all the way to their demise. But it doesn’t stop there; once the CD-ROM company starts resting on its laurels, Flash drives come in and takes over the market. And all the while, cloud storage is hatching on a distant continent, waiting to swoop in and clear everyone out.


It’s easy to see where Robb Stark has gone wrong–it’s more important to recognize how he’s gone wrong, so that we can avoid making the same mistakes ourselves. The consequences for such mistakes, much like the ever-present wolf at Robb’s side, can be dire.


And who are you, the proud lord said,
That I must bow so low?
Only a cat of a different coat,
That’s all the truth I know.
In a coat of gold or a coat of red,
A lion still has claws,
And mine are long and sharp, my lord,
As long and sharp as yours.
And so he spoke, and so he spoke,
That lord of Castamere,
But now the rains weep o’er his hall,
With no one there to hear.
Yes now the rains weep o’er his hall,
And not a soul to hear.

(The Rains of Castamere)


Thanks to Alex Willen for reading drafts of this.

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  • http://slidespin.tv/ CrystalFissure

    Nice job. Robb really did screw up at the end of the day, and his critical mistakes could’ve easily been avoided. However, it probably wouldn’t have made for interesting reading/viewing; well at least compared to the whole Red Wedding fiasco. “Bloody” fantastic.

    • Jake Law

      One of the key elements in the series is showing that The Starks didn’t deserve to win the throne. They can’t climb, as little finger would say. LANNISTER SWAG

      • Sean Rose

        I’m going to start using #lannisterswag from this day forward.

  • Peter Dougherty

    I would add one more example, and the one that likely sealed his fate. Bad human resources management and an inappropriate “termination” of a key employee – Lord Rickard Karstark. It turned his primary advisor against him and, in the end, that advisor ended up running a sword through his heart.

    I might also add that it’s never a bad thing to listen to your mother, just don’t let her anywhere near the boardroom!

    • Sean Rose

      I agree – I originally had a section titled “Avoid Conflicts of Interest”, which went into why it was bad to keep both Cat and Karstark around. I had to remove it so the post would be short enough for people to read.

  • Zeke Uchiha

    He’s also only 15 in the books though.