Who really holds the power in the Game of Thrones?

Power. Almost all of the Game of Thrones serial revolves around that simple word – who has the power, who wants it and how do they use it. It is a cruel world, but with very simple rules – When you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die. There is no middle ground, or, to paraphrase, you either hold the power or die to try to obtain it.

In Westeros, everyone wants power; almost all of the bloody wars throughout the Westeros’ history were fueled with lust for power – War of Ninepenny Kings, War of Five Kings, Greyjoy rebellion and many others.

But why? What is so attractive in holding the power? Seemingly, there are as many different reasons as there are pretenders: Tywin Lannister wants to ensure the family legacy; Robb Stark wants to avenge the death of his father; Stannis Baratheon wants to obtain what he considers to be his duty and honorable thing to do; Daenerys Targaryen wants to create a new, better world.

Even though all those reasons seem different from each other, they can condense on the same thing: power is, essentially, the possibility of one person to influence another one.

In psychology, power is a concept which is still not clearly defined; the majority of definitions focus on the ability to influence others, gain their support in achieving a goal or making them act in a certain way. Aside from the definition, researchers have also tried to identify what is the source of power, ie. what makes people powerful. Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven have identified five separate bases of power.


  1. Legitimate power

Legitimate power is based on the title or the position of the holder. The best example of this type of power in Westeros is kingship. At the beginning of the series, Robert Baratheon is the only king of the Seven Kingdoms. His position allows him to dispense justice, command armies, make laws, dispense lands and titles, collect taxes and many more things. That power derives solely from his kingship – there are many people who resent him personally, many people who still consider him a usurper of the throne, who are unsatisfied with the way he runs the country, but he still has power over them as a legitimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.

Legitimate power - Robert Baratheon - Stop this madness in the name of your king

The current Hand of the King has similar power; he talks with the king’s voice. Even ifyou don’t agree with the Hand, as Cersei did not agree with Tyrion being the acting Hand for Joffrey, he still has the power; his office grants him power second only to the King’s.

Night’s Watch is also organized hierarchically; the Lord Commander has the power to decide every man’s job, to steer the politics of the Watch, organize the rangings and give commands as he pleases. Disobeying his commands is considered treason and is punishable by death, as we saw with Jon Snow and Janos Slynt in *episode*

In these examples, we see that the way the status is obtained does not matter; kingship is obtained by legacy or by conquest; the Hand is named specifically by the king while Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch is chosen by voting. As long as their subject recognize their choosing as legitimate, they hold the power of their office.

The drawback of this power base is that it is tied to the position rather than to a person; when you lose the position, you lose the status. That happened to the Tyrion when Tywin returned to the King’s Landing to occupy his office; in a matter of moments, he became one of the many nobles in Westeros while he recently was the second most powerful man in the kingdom. This is why it helps to draw power from other bases besides legitimacy.


  1. Reward power

Reward power derives from the implementer’s ability to control important resources and awards that other people want, such as money, lands or titles. People believe that agreeing with the holder of reward power, doing him favors or helping him in some way will lead to desirable outcomes – getting richer, more famous or more important. People who hold legitimate power often hold reward power, too; e.g. king can reward a loyal subject with lands or titles that were stripped from someone who turned traitor.

Still, reward power doesn’t have to be tied to the title; Lannisters are the example of that. Being famous for their gold mines, all of Westeros knows about their fortune and ability to amply reward loyal subject. Their unofficial motto, Lannister always pays his debts have become much more popular than their official words, as they are a promise of reward. Tyrion is often seen citing those words when trying to get out of the trouble. Most notable examples are his bribing the jailer Mord in Eyrie’s sky cells to get him in front of Lysa Arryn for a hearing; after that, he has promised gold and weapons to the Vale hill tribes in exchange for their loyalty. Even though he couldn’t show them the reward at that moment, he managed to convince them that he is, indeed, rich and that their help will be appreciated.

Jaime also uses reward power when he approaches Randyll Tarly, trying to recruit him in a war against Olenna Tyrell. He promises him the position of the Warden of the South, effectively meaning that he would not have overlord besides the Iron Throne; instead of being Tyrells’ bannermen as Tarlys have been for centuries, Randyll would rule the whole region and his prized son, Dickon, would inherit the title when the time comes. Randyll knows that Jaime is able to reward him with that: after all, he is the Queen’s brother and most trusted advisor, and Lannisters are in power. In this scene, Jaime wears Lannister armor, indicating the affiliation with his house. Bearing all that in mind, Randyll accepts the offer.

Reward power - Jaime Lannister - The Queen will need a new Warden of the South.

  1. Coercive power

Coercive power derives from the fear – the powerful person is able to hurt their subjects, treat them badly or discharge them. It manifests in threats to someone that they will be exposed to the unpleasant consequences if they do not obey.

The first person that comes into my mind when we talk about coercive power is none other than King Joffrey Baratheon, First of His Name.

Joffrey is often cruel and sadistic and he enjoys tormenting people. He justifies his cruel actions assuring himself that his victims deserved to be punished and that strength is the virtue of the true king. When he feels threatened, he immediately calls for violence. First notable example of this in the series was his encounter with Mycah, the butcher boy and Arya’s sparring partner. He wanted to punish him for acting above his status and therefore almost killed him with his sword. When Arya’s direwolf, Nymeria, disrupted his try, he got extremely irate and demanded that both direwolf and butcher’s boy be killed.

He also liked to punish Sansa whenever somebody brought news of Robb Stark’s battle victories; after the battle of Oxcross, Joffrey holds Sansa at crossbow sight, ordering Meryn Trant of the Kingsguard to strip and beat her, without ruining her face.

After the royal family had sent Princess Myrcella to Dorne, the people in Flea Bottom have gathered and started yelling insults to Joffrey as well as throwing excrement on him.  He ordered his guards to find the person who threw it; as that was not possible, he shouted to Just kill them! Kill them all!

He might have gotten the idea from his mother, as Queen Cersei also likes to display her coercive power. In Season 2, there is a scene where she and Littlefinger walk through the Red Keep, discussing the importance of power. Littlefinger states that Knowledge is power. Cersei orders the guards to seize him and then release him, stating that Power is power, relying on brute force to ensure her status.

As you can imagine, this type of power rarely leads to good outcomes; it creates fear, dissatisfaction, riot and conspirations and those who have to endure it often try to escape in one way or another. As we saw, Joffrey was murdered on his own wedding feast, and all of Cersei’s trusted advisors have left her.


  1. Referent power

Referent power is based on the implementer’s personality and his relationship with his peers. The person who holds referent power is well liked, charismatic and charming. His followers want to do whatever he wants because they feel the deep connection with him, are loyal or adore him.

Lord Eddard Stark is a perfect example for this. Even though he was not meant to be a Lord of Winterfell or a Warden of the North as a second born son, he got that role and did the best he could; his bannermen respect him and are fiercely loyal to him even after his death. He made an effort to visit his bannermen and northern mountain clans often and build trust and relationships with them, despite the vastness of the North and the long time it takes to travel from one place to another. He cared for his people and his care inspired loyalty which brought him power; there were no rebellions in the north while he was ruling it.

Renly Baratheon as the king could also fit in this category. He was, by no means, a legitimate heir to the Iron Throne – there were three of Robert’s (acknowledged) children and Stannis in the line of succession before him. He is also definitely not coercive – he doesn’t like violence and does not inspire fear. What about the rewards? He was a lord of Storm’s End, but it is not a very rich or fruitful region. So, why did he, at the beginning of the War of Five Kings, had the largest army? Because he is lovable. Think about it – he is young, handsome, looks like Robert before all whoring and drinking took its toll, he is kind, gentle and generous; he is also accepting towards people who are not exactly typical, like Brienne of Tarth. All that makes his subjects loyal to him and willing to march, fight and even die for him if necessary. That is why the whole army disbanded after his death – he was the force that kept them together.

Referent power - Renly Baratheon - Stannis is not a king. I am.

Referent power is considered the best type of power; leaders whose personality is the base of their power, e.g. whose subordinates like them have a higher chance of success and their people tend to be much more satisfied. Even in the cruel environment, Westeros is, we see that the doom of Ned and Renly was not due to the mutiny of their people or lack of love, but to the magic or the people who knew how to play the game of thrones better than they did.


  1. Expert power

Expert power derives from the knowledge or skills – the person who has the specific knowledge or skills to solve a certain problem, will often be listened to and respected. Still, it is not enough to merely possess the knowledge – the target people need to recognize the implementer’s expertize and perceive him as the reliable source of valuable advice. When they perceive it, the implementer becomes powerful because other people have respect for his knowledge and will listen because they think he knows best.

The main source of expert power in Westeros is the Order of Maesters. Maesters are the scholars who have completed their training in the Citadel and then sent to serve the great lords in their castles. As their services have to be paid, only the richest lords are able to afford them. Maesters are educated in the fields of ravenry, healing, astronomy, warcraft, history, economy and many more. They wear a chain of different metals around their neck to signify their fields of expertise. As their education is well-known, lords entrust maesters with the education of their children, writing and reading their messages, advising in ruling the area etc.

One of the most noted maesters both in the books and the show was Maester Aemon of the Night’s Watch. He was loyal to the Watch for decades and advised dozen of Lord Commanders which all held a great respect for him and considered him a valuable advisor. He was also powerful enough to influence the choice of the next Lord Commander and sits as a judge in trials for sworn brothers and influences the verdict heavily.

His name was Aemon Targaryen. And now his watch has ended.

Expert power is also connected with the satisfaction of the subordinates; people are more likely to listen to someone the perceive knowledgeable about the subject than someone who is just in the position of power.


To sum up, we have presented the five bases of power. But, can we talk about the best one? The most effective? Even though referent and expert power usually provide the best results and lead to highest satisfaction of one’s subordinates, research shows that the best rulers are able to combine all types of power to a certain extent, e.g. to recognize which base would be effective in which situation.

With that in mind, who would be the best leader in Westeros?

In my opinion, Jon of the Houses Targaryen and Stark, The Resurrected, The First of his Name, The White Wolf, Rightful King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm, Ex-Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Lord of Winterfell, King in the North, Beater of Bastards Friend of the Free Folk And Knower of Nothing (see, Davos, this is a proper way to present him)!

King in the North!

Let’s see how he draws power from all the stated bases. First of all, legitimate power. Even though he was considered illegitimate child all his life, he was democratically elected a Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and nobody questioned that. Afterward, lords of the North have declared him the King in the North, giving him leadership among all of them. He is also seen using reward power when dealing with the wildlings; in exchange for their help, he promised him the free pass through the Wall and giving them lands to settle. Even though that move wasn’t well received with the rest of the Watch, it brought him a tremendous amount of influence with the wildlings. When needed, he also does not hesitate to use coercive power – he persuaded Rast not to fight or taunt Sam by intimidating him with the Ghost. Also, he punished Janos Slynt for refusing to obey the order. The main base of his power is actually referent – people generally like him, believe him and accept him as a leader. As for expert power, he spent a lot of time with the wildlings beyond the Wall. As far as it goes, he was the only black brother with the knowledge about the wildling life who came back to the Wall, which prepared the Watch for the future attacks.

Do you agree? Who do you think is the most powerful leader in Game of Thrones?

Who do you think is/was the most powerful leader in Game of Thrones?
  • Add your answer

Please follow and like us:

Leave a Reply