Leadership and Thorin Oakenshield

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I started a series of leadership posts by talking about Bilbo Baggins. During that post, I touched on Thorin Oakenshield. Today, I want to look a bit more deeply at Thorin.

Thorin Oakenshield was the son of Thrain and the grandson of Thror, who had been King Under the Mountain until the dragon Smaug killed him and stole everything in his kingdom, including the Arkenstone (symbol of the kingship). Thorin wanted to reclaim the Arkenstone and thereby the dwarf throne.

Thorin began his quest as a charismatic leader who enlisted the loyalty and support of a small troop of dwarves. Further, on the advice of Gandalf the Grey, he convinced Bilbo Baggins to hire on as the troop’s burglar. Thorin was focused on his openly stated goal of reclaiming the Arkenstone. He shared that goal with his fellow dwarves and freely admitted it to the King of the Woodland Elves and to the men of Laketown. Further, he freely committed to share the wealth of the golden hoard guarded by Smaug with the people of Laketown for their assistance in reaching the ancient dwarf kingdom under the mountain.

Upon reaching the mountain, and following the death of Smaug at the hands of one of the men of Laketown, Thorin fell under the spell of the gold and refused to fulfill his commitment to the men of Laketown (which had been destroyed by Smaug just before his death). He also refused to discuss a long-standing claim by the Woodland Elves that had been dismissed by Thror, Thorin’s grandfather. Thorin became paranoid when the troop failed to find the Arkenstone and began to suspect his own kin of betraying him.

As mentioned last week, Thorin, goaded by Bilbo’s words and the disappointment of his own kin, recognized his failures and regained his moral leadership before dying in the Battle of the Five Armies.

What has this to do with leadership in 2017? I suspect that many, if not all of us, have seen situations where leaders commit to a goal or a strategy and pursue it far beyond the point at which it is widely recognized that the pursuit is failing. That is not terribly different than Thorin succumbing to the spell of the gold. The allure of the goal can blind us (that would be us leaders) to the reality of what we are putting at risk by continuing to invest in achieving a goal that is beyond reach. I was involved in a real situation (trying to win business) in which we invested a very significant sum in order to remain competitive with another company that was receiving customer funding. The other company received funding from the government that exceeded our internal investment by almost an order of magnitude, but we continued to convince ourselves that our investment was sufficient to win.. When we lost to our competitor, we said, “Well, if we had known at the beginning what we know now, we wouldn’t have invested at all.” Well, actually, there was nothing we learned before the announcement of our loss that we hadn’t had available to us before we made the investment. We were simply under the spell of the dragon’s hoard. We were blind to what it was costing us because we were committed to a goal we were extremely unlikely to achieve.

None of this means that leaders should never commit to bold goals. It does, however, mean that we shouldn’t do it blindly and we should listen to the Bilbos amongst us before we find ourselves in extremis.

Thorin was a good dwarf and a powerful leader who did the right thing in the end, but who paid for his mistakes dearly. Unlike Thorin, we should listen to disconfirming evidence, contrary perspectives and contrary opinions. We don’t necessarily have to accept them, but we do have to listen, and make the best decisions, before it’s too late.





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