Jason Criss Howk
12 Jan 2019
As we prepare for the next season of Game of Thrones we are reviewing the 7th season. Spoilers ahead…
As we watched the story unfold we were struck by the similarities of warfare, policy making, and intelligence operations to today.
This season centers partly around a young advisor/scholar/scientist from the tip-of-the-spear military unit up North traveling into the bowels of the bureaucracy at the knowledge center of the kingdom to gain knowledge the warfighters and senior leaders need to win the war. That advisor is called a maester and the center of knowledge is called the Citadel.
For more insights on Game of Thrones characters and concepts go here.
Here is the bit of GoT knowledge you need to follow my thoughts below.
“The Order of Maesters, also known as the Maesters of the Citadel, the Knights of the Mind, and most often simply as the Maesters, are an order of scholars, healers, and learned men in the Seven Kingdoms. Due to their scientific and intellectual pursuits, they are sometimes referred to as “the knights of the mind”.”
One of the first observations my wife made during episode 1 was about the maesters and the citadel. She noted that all those books full of all the knowledge of mankind, are absolutely useless, unless someone is wise and motivated enough to comb through them for exactly the information the kings and generals need to win the war. That, if no one is willing to disrupt the old system and gather timely information, those books might as well be a pile of logs.
You see this young maester in training was looking for very specific information about the object called dragon glass. His commander wanted all the data he could get about this tool because it was one of the only things he tried that would kill his seemingly unstoppable enemy.
But, the senior maesters at the citadel didn’t care about what the military unit in the heat of battle needed. They had their own way of doing business and it did not include digging through all their books to help out the General in the fight.
So the young maester is told to shut up and color. To stop thinking outside the box. To feed and care for the older maesters and even to clean up their shit.
Luckily this young advisor and scholar ignores the directives from the bureaucratic people around him and starts to conduct useful intelligence collection and analysis. He is willing to risk his career to help the Kings (policy makers), generals and warriors by giving them the information they are asking for, and not the information his bosses want him to give.
So why did this strike a cord.
(Quick note: Intelligence agencies globally conduct a lot of operations, but generally their role is to collect information (often called secrets), analyze that information into useful insights, and then publish that information as timely intelligence to their customers in their government. They are prohibited, usually, from making policy, but must be aware of policy aims and the needs of numerous types of Intel customers)
I spent many years working with intelligence officers, military leaders, and policy/strategy crafters in Kabul Afghanistan and later in DC. It gave me a chance to see this age-old issue play out. I worked with Intel agencies from across my own government and in our allies and partner’s governments. We matched wits with Iran, China, Russia, and others over the years. I got to see how many different Intel organizations operate forward in the fight and back in their home capitals.
The similarities to US Intel agencies is uncanny as you watch game of thrones. Our own agencies are often citadels with vast amounts of knowledge and amazing experts with unmatched history, science, politics, and military insights.
And yet, our citadels are often led at many levels by arrogant and detached managers that think they know exactly what policy makers, generals, and warriors need to know…and are too consumed with their own projects to answer the questions that are actually being asked by their customers. Or should be asked. NOT all managers, not even the majority, but too many.
This has been changing since September 11th but we still have a ways to go. Just ask any seasoned Intel collector or junior analyst about how their “citadel” operates.
It takes disruptive members inside the Intel agencies that go into the analysis citadels with an Intel collector or policy-maker’s mindset to ensure the most timely AND useful information is making it out to the right people as soon as possible.
If policy makers and military leaders need dragon glass to defeat their enemies our citadels of knowledge must drop much of what they are doing to surge brains towards the dragon glass project.
Training great maester leaders is hard work, it is too often done as an afterthought. They must be willing, everyday, to admit, I don’t know what my customer really needs to be successful, so I will listen to them and help them figure out what they need…and then give it to them in spades.
So is your Intel team creating disruptive, motivated, and capable “knights of the mind” or jaded, slow, know-it-all bureaucrats that sleepwalk around the citadel?
The difference can be catastrophic for a nation.