“Bear Island knows no king except the King in the North, whose name is Stark.”- Lady Lyanna Mormont
I meant to post this before, but after re-watching Season 6 of the HBO fantasy saga Game of Thrones, I just had to take time out for some remarks on leadership as personified by the 2016 iteration of the show’s breakout star- Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, played brilliantly by 12-year-old English actress Bella Ramsey.
You don’t have to be familiar with the books or show to relate to this post, but as was the case in my last detour on Gettysburg and Union Army Chief of Cavalry Major General John Buford, going to take a step away from hockey to talk about the pint-sized, but fierce character and why not only the screenwriters but Miss Ramsey herself did such a tremendous job in distilling pure leadership into just a few memorable scenes and dialogue.
I’ve got 22 years of active duty military service and counting, but I’ll tell you this- Lyanna Mormont knows leadership. It’s one thing for a fictional character to be described as a leader, but the actor has to pull it off, and in just a few scene stealers, it isn’t hard to figure out why young Ramsey is receiving such critical acclaim. It isn’t difficult to see some key lessons in leadership that combat leaders and leaders in general have in common, even though Bear Island resides in fantasyland.
For those who watched season 6 and know exactly of which I speak, I believe there will be some easter eggs in this post for you, so read on. For those who aren’t all that familiar with the George R.R. Martin series of books or with HBO’s runaway hit that debuted back in the spring of 2011, just a few short months before the Boston Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, you can probably follow along just fine. For those who are fans but have not yet seen Season 6 and are worried about spoilers…I will do my best not to include many, but one person’s spoiler is another one’s teaser, so if you’re the kind of person who simply cannot abide being told about something before you see it yourself, then stop reading now.
Okay- you were warned. Spoiler alert is on.
Without spending too much time on it- Lady Lyanna Mormont is the head of a proud warrior house from a hardscrabble island off the coast of Westeros, the fantastical setting for Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire opus, known on television as GoT after the first book of the series, published two decades ago.
Lyanna is just 10 years old when introduced near the end of season six- ascending to the head of House Mormont after her mother died in battle during the War of the Five Kings on behalf of Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The people of the Northlands in Westeros are fierce and proud- they live a difficult existence but embrace the hard living compared to their neighbors to the south, especially those in the Westerosi capital, King’s Landing. Think of them as a loose grouping of warrior tribes, each with their own identity, but united under the Wolf sigil banner of House Stark- the warden clan of the North for a near milennium.
The War of Five Kings has tested those alliances and fractured many of them, leaving the late Robb Stark’s illegitimate brother, Jon Snow, to try and re-form a coalition to defeat the evil, twisted and depraved Ramsay Bolton and drive his minions from the Stark ancestral home and castle at Winterfell. To say any more about Jon Snow or his relationship to Robb’s younger sister, Sansa Stark, would cause for too many spoilers and detract from the post’s purpose, so I won’t go there. Let’s just say that it’s complicated, so when Snow, Sansa and Snow’s right-hand man Ser Davos of House Seaworth arrive at the Mormont stronghold, they’re in dire straits and in need of some good fighting men.
Enter, Lady Lyanna. The exchange is worth watching…not only for the excellent acting (especially by Bella Ramsey but more on her later) but for how one so young carries herself while surrounded by adults and several notable, battle-tested swordsmen at that. If your eyes and ears weren’t betraying her to be one so young, you could close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical fantasy warrior with huge build, muscles and flowing beard saying the same things. Ah, but the key to earning respect and winning influence goes well beyond mere appearances…
So, what did you see here?
The first thing that struck me is that there is no doubting who is in charge. When the group enters the room and addresses them, she firmly replies with “Welcome to Bear Island,” and then says no more. The underlying message for them is clear: let’s see what you have for me. You were the ones who asked for an audience, so…speak. She makes no attempt at small talk and when Sansa Stark tries to do so, she quickly dispenses with the pleasantries.
Strike one for the coalition builders.
When Jon Snow compounds the mistake by referencing her deceased uncle (also his former military commander, but yep- too complicated to get into), she allows him to speak a bit as a basic courtesy and then cuts him off in order to get to the point.
That’s strike two.
When you have your own fiefdom to run, platitudes and remembrances don’t keep the people of Bear Island safe. Time is precious, and you can see early in the scene that she’s doing the mental calculus on how strong her potential allies are, and thus far- they’re showing themselves to be wanting.
What’s interesting about Lyanna here is that she’s not disrespectful, but her demeanor reflects an iron spine that her people pride themselves on. She lives on a small island made up of dense forests (and lots of bears of course) populated by strong and hardy people- lumberjacks and fishermen chief amongst them. Lady Lyanna might be young and not yet a proven, blooded warrior for House Mormont, but she is wise beyond her years. She recognizes the well-meaning attempt by Jon and Sansa to ingratiate themselves before the real parlay begins, but she simply doesn’t have time for it.
She also no doubt knows full well why they came to see her.
Her biggest responsibility as Bear Island’s leader is to make decisions that people will live or possibly die as the result of. It’s one thing for someone to inherit the mantel of responsibility and leadership, but it’s quite another to get your charges to actually comply with your decisions or put their lives at your command. Leadership is respect, and just a minute or so in, I was captivated at just how much respect she commanded in that room.
As Jon talks to her about the importance of defeating the Bolton coalition, and makes another tactical error of continuing with “what you have to understand, my lady, is…” she’s heard enough and takes charge of the meeting once and for all, challenging him to sell her on what is in it for Bear Island if the Mormonts commit more troops to the venture.
It’s a powerful moment, because Snow looks to Sansa and doesn’t know what else to say. They aren’t getting anywhere, and it looks as if Bear Island and House Mormont will join a growing list of northern allies who decline to help Snow and his followers in their greatest time of need.
Luckily, Ser Davos, one of the few truly good men in the series left (ironic given his beginnings as a smuggler and pirate) and a valuable advisor to Jon, steps in and saves the day.
What I love about Lyanna’s response is that while skeptical at first, you sense that Davos has made a genuine connection with her, much like he did with another young noblewoman named Shireen Baratheon earlier in the series. Her tragic story is best told elsewhere, but you sense that in Lady Lyanna, Ser Davos recognizes the same kind of potential for greatness he did in little Shireen and as they speak to one another, you see a growing mutual respect between them. He’s speaking her language- acknowledging her responsibilities and praising her for the work she’s done to maintain her house, but not patronizing her or treating her like a child. He cuts to the heart of the matter, which gets her attention when he says: “this battle is between the living and the dead.” Davos answers the “what’s in it for us?” question Lyanna wanted Jon to answer for her up front.
I also like the dynamic between Lady Lyanna and her advisors. You can see that she depends on them…listens to them. Earlier in the scene, she’s more inclined to take their advice and treats her visitors with healthy skepticism that her maester is fueling. But once she sees the bigger picture that Davos paints, she holds up her hand when the advisor (maester) senses where she might be leaning and attempts to counsel her. In that moment, you see that she has made a critical decision. And you hear her fierce decisiveness in the words that follow.
I actually got goosebumps the first time I watched the scene when Lyanna replies: “House Mormont has kept faith with House Stark for a thousand years. We will not break faith today.”
When Snow asks how many men House Mormont will contribute to the cause, Lady Lyanna again consults one of her advisors, this time the man flanking her and likely her field commander/senior ranking man-at-arms. She replies “62” and Snow is clearly taken aback at such a paltry sum. The Mistress of Bear Island immediately senses the unease and declares that her soldiers can “fight with the strength of 10 mainlanders.” All of the sudden, the power of 620 rough-and-tumble guys joining the fight doesn’t seem like such a bad deal at all.
And when Ser Davos compliments her, at the end by saying “If they are half as ferocious as their lady, then the Boltons are doomed,” she’s not put off- she simply smiles and nods. Because that’s not small talk or idle flattery. It’s the truth.
It’s rare that one so young and in just about 5 minutes and change of screen time can make such an impression, but that’s what the precocious Bella Ramsey pulls off. It’s a remarkable performance, all the more exceptional by the fact that this is her first-ever role. She not only blew away her fellow actors- the adults in the scene- by already committing her lines to memory the very first time they sat down together for a reading (they hadn’t), but by studying the dialects and accent of Northern England natives, which is what the Northmen of Westeros are based on. Miss Ramsey is 12 years old- a little more senior than Lyanna Mormont as portrayed in the books and show, but she pulls it off so well. There is little doubt that Hollywood has seen enough of Bella and she’s sure to get more work going forward.
But for now, it’s her Game of Thrones role we’re focusing on…
Lady Mormont is seen just two more times in season 6- glaring at the leering, loathsome Ramsay Bolton while he and Jon Snow parlay on the eve before the “Battle of the Bastards” in Episode 9. She doesn’t say a word, but when the vile Bolton turns his attention towards her and in all of his oily repulsiveness, talks of pardoning the “treasonous lords” who allied with Jon’s coalition, he turns his lecherous gaze her way. Seated on her horse behind Snow, Sansa, Davos and their retinue, she need not have run Bolton through with a sword at that point- the daggers should have done the trick if looks could kill. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this championship-caliber scowl, directed straight at Bolton himself:
She makes one last memorable appearance in the final episode of Season 6, standing up in a hall of bickering north lords to shame several of them. As you listen to her say “You refused the call” each time in her Northern accent, you can almost feel her words burning through you. When she finishes with the words “(Jon Snow) is my king this day…and until his last day,” I don’t know about you but I was ready to pick up a sword and start chanting “The King in the North!” right then. You won’t be surprised at what kind of a reaction it gets from all the long-haired manly men with swords.
Bravo, Miss Ramsey, bravo. A star is born.
Now here are 5 quick lessons in leadership as taught by Lady Lyanna Mormont
- When in charge, be in charge: From the moment Snow and company meet her, there is no mistaking that she commands the fortunes of Bear Island. This is no figurehead- we don’t know how Lyanna rose to be named her house’s chief at such a young age in the wake of her mother’s death in battle, but we know why.
- Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill every person you meet: Her words are iron and although she’s not rude to her guests, she sends a clear message early in the meeting that she’s not messing around. This is someone who has seen much in her 10 years, but she also already possesses the wisdom that to truly protect her people, she must be willing to make hard decisions that put some of them in peril. This is why she allows Davos to speak and listens to what he tells her, recognizing the danger ahead if she doesn’t do her part to help unite the North. It’s just a story, but leaders in just about every walk of life have to be engaged all of the time, and find those golden nuggets that can drive an important decision, even if it isn’t readily apparent at first.
- Seek advice of counsel, but own the decisions you make: A few quick exchanges let you see that she understands that she doesn’t have everything figured out. The most successful leaders know that they didn’t reach their position alone and that their real success has a lot to do with the people around them. Surround yourself with smart, talented people over sycophants and yes-men and you’ll make informed decisions more often than not. Once you make those decisions, you’re responsible for whatever happens, good or bad. The great leaders know when to trust informed counsel and when to do what they think is right, even if it means going against the advice they’re given. Once Davos convinced Lyanna that joining the coalition and uniting the north was critical to preparing for what is to come, she didn’t dither or waffle.
- Lead from the front, set the right example: Lyanna could have sent her 62 men away from Bear Island and left it to Jon Snow to employ them within his fighting force, but that’s not what great leaders do. She takes a hands-on approach and goes with them to Winterfell, even though she’s not going to ride into battle with the warriors. Her presence ensures that she has a say in how they are managed and led while safeguarding their personal welfare when it comes to logistics and their partnership. As she grows and gains skill at arms and physical strength, she will fight alongside her men as her mother and predecessors in House Mormont did, but for now- she understands her place is with the overall effort to defeat the Boltons, even if she’s not yet ready for the martial test. Her men see her there with them, sharing in the hardships of field living and are no doubt inspired that in committing them to the cause, she’s also putting herself at risk with her personal stake in the conflict.
- Live your values and embrace your code even when times are tough: When it appeared that the most important coalition of all might fracture again, she stood up and cowed a room full of battle tested warriors, many of whom were three, four even five times her age. She did it because she was convinced of the righteousness of the cause and she did it for her king. It might have been easier for her to simply sit and remain silent as the youngest warlord in the room, but her devotion to her values and her understanding of the larger picture and what was at stake gave her the moral courage to intervene. It might be hard to believe in this day and age that one so young could do that, but there is a great deal we can learn from our children if we give them a chance. Lady Lyanna saw the opening and seized it. Like. A. Boss.
If the show’s producers don’t figure out a way to get Bella Ramsey/Lyanna Mormont more screen time in seasons 7 and 8- then there is something seriously wrong. Having said that, I think they’ve heard the call (say it in your best Lyanna Mormont voice) and will trot her out for more scene stealers in 2017 and 2018. She’s got the goods.
We’ll be back with hockey and a last look at the undrafted free agents in Boston’s system who have yet to crack the big roster.