“Jon Snow” and “strategic genius” are certainly terms that don’t seem to go together.
While Jon is one of the most beloved of characters in Game of Thrones, Ned Stark’s bastard son is often viewed like his “father”—a hero, but not a very smart or strategic one. Viewers see this in everything from Littlefinger’s sneering appraisal of him to Jon’s performance in the Battle of the Bastards, where he easily fell into Ramsay Bolton’s trap. Indeed, even the first love of his life, Ygritte, a fiery Free Folk, perhaps best sums up how Jon has generally been perceived: “You’re brave. Stupid, but brave.”
But just as the Bastard of Winterfell’s actual birth history turns out to be more than once presumed, it’s time to reevaluate how Jon Snow is viewed as a strategic leader. Far from just having great hair and sword skills, Jon Snow shares many of the attributes that have made the real world’s great supreme military commanders so successful, particularly one of the most revered in U.S. history, George Washington. Jon Snow serves as a reminder that the qualities of just one man can shape the course of an entire war. As the sellsword-turned-knight Bronn once put it, “Men win wars. Not magic tricks.” Ultimately, leaders make decisions, and decisions make history. And Jon Snow’s personal characteristics suggest that he just might be bound for greatness as a strategic leader.
It may be a cliché, but it is also an entirely valid lesson in both Game of Thrones and the real world: leaders are both made and born. The dynamic relationship between inherent qualities and learned attributes is often what determines a leader’s trajectory in life and conflict.
Jon Snow possesses the personal magnetism with which so many high-performing leaders are born. The often indescribable, but very real, power of persuasion and attraction that gets others to follow has repeatedly shaped history. In the American Revolution, one of the most crucial moments happened not in battle but when the tall, attractive George Washington strode into the Second Continental Congress on May 9, 1775, wearing a tailored military uniform of his own design. The often-disagreeable leaders there unanimously voted in Washington, who looked the part, as the commander of the new American army. Throughout the war, Washington would carry himself in a similar way that captured the imagination of his contemporaries. Historians have also noted the way he used his noble aloofness to strategic advantage in keeping himself above the age’s often-petty personal politics.
We see the same qualities in Jon Snow, as others are naturally drawn toward him and defer to him. Both the newest recruits to the Night’s Watch and its senior commander, Jeor Mormont, quickly recognize that Jon is special, a friend to be made and a future leader to be molded. Indeed, when the Wall is attacked by hordes of Free Folk led by former Night’s Watch brother Mance Rayder, who similarly has been impressed by Jon, the young man takes command of the Wall’s defense, an act that no one questions despite his clearly lesser rank. When Jon then orders his friend Grenn and five others to go down to protect the inner gate because giants are poised to breach the Wall, Grenn’s group knows precisely what this means—their own likely deaths. But they still fight on, for a very simple reason, as Grenn tells the unit, “You heard Jon.” Jon knew what to do, and the brothers of the Night’s Watch trusted him, even when he was not formally in charge of them.
That Jon Snow, like Washington, was born with a quality of personal magnetism doesn’t mean that he was destined for leadership. Joffrey also looked the part, and he was anything but a great leader. Indeed, with the circumstances of his birth clouded in mystery, Jon’s early days were instead defined by hardship that would prove crucial to his development and later leadership success. Jon gained personal resilience through an early life as the outsider Bastard of Winterfell and then suffered his father’s beheading, as well as the loss of his brothers Robb and Rickon. Similarly, George Washington lost his father at age 11 and then his brother Laurence (who had become his “surrogate father”) at 20. Both were forced to take on early responsibilities and develop the mental and emotional toughness that often defines the best leaders. Such difficulties in childhood track with the unfortunate experiences of many other successful American leaders, including Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, among others. But a broader study of over four hundred high-performing individuals also found that more than 75 percent had difficult childhoods. As spymaster Lord Varys says, “Any fool with a bit of luck can find himself born into power. But earning it for yourself? That takes work.”
It is this intersection of natural talent and early difficulty that leads Jon to build another important attribute, the ability to move across diverse settings. Early in the series, he laments to Tyrion the twin life of a bastard, knowing the lord’s family but having to eat among the lower born. Yet this dual experience provides Jon the knowledge and skills of a noble as well as an awareness and authenticity that endeared him to his troops and common folk. He understood situations from multiple perspectives, bringing to the game of thrones both the bottom-up and the top-down view that arguably no one else in Westeros could. Being able to move easily among the high and the low born has characterized many real-world leaders as well. Washington both was the equivalent of Virginia nobility and also spent his early years working as a professional surveyor, which he started at age 16 on a farm and revisited later while enduring difficult frontier expeditions (the equivalent of being beyond the Wall).
In constructing these capabilities, Snow and Washington were formed and fashioned by exceptional mentors. Ned Stark raised Jon Snow and taught him not just how to wield a sword but everything from the communication skills a good general would need in battle to the strong moral code a respected leader brings to critical relationships. Despite what Jon’s nemesis Ser Allister Thorne might say (“You have a good heart Jon Snow. It’ll get us all killed”), the reality is that these codes are often the pathway to victory. Leaders who are known to be guided by a code are considered more trustworthy by others and are thus able to build and maintain coalitions and alliances. Amoral or immoral actors don’t work well with others, and when they do, it is at best transactional and short-term.
An apt illustration is provided by Littlefinger, who’s trusted by nobody. As a result, his power is brittle and unreliable. In contrast, Jon continually builds a loyal network of followers, partners, and allies that is both sustainable and ever growing. It is not coincidental that Jon is the series’ only leader to be elected to leadership, twice, of radically different organizations, in much the same way that Washington was voted as both commander of the new American army and then president of the new United States.
It isn’t that Jon Snow or George Washington were men of moral perfection or even always lived up to their codes. We often see Jon fall short. He violated his Night’s Watch oath with Ygritte, and then he lies to Tormund that there were one thousand men at Castle Black, an act of military deception. So too, Washington was a flawed man who accepted slavery around him and who was also devious enough to run a series of spy rings. In a sense, this duality of a moral code, but peppered with pragmatism, is what allows Jon to succeed in a world where an inflexible Ned Stark was unable to survive, just as it allowed Washington to win a war that melded high moralities and low realities.
Jon’s practical education continued after he parted from Ned, when Jon “took the black” and was selected to serve as personal steward to Lord Commander Jeor Mormont. In Mormont’s fate, there is a striking echo to George Washington’s own pre–Revolutionary War mentor. In 1755 Washington served as British general Edward Braddock’s senior American aide and learned how large armies were organized, but he also witnessed the consequences of military operations that fail to understand their foes or operating environment. Like Mormont’s expedition past the Wall, Braddock’s campaign to retake Fort Duquesne from the French would end in disaster and Braddock’s own death.
These internal qualities and early years of experience and mentorship prepared Jon well for the Great War, which many sensed was coming.
Jon showed himself to be personally courageous, which would seem to be unstrategic. But influenced by his mentors, Jon knew that such displays had real battlefield benefits. Much is made of Jon’s one-man charge during the Battle of the Bastards, but what is often forgotten is the psychological tactic he employed when he called out Ramsay Bolton before the fight: “Will your men want to fight for you when they hear you wouldn’t fight for them?”
In a similar manner, Washington understood that, at some point, the strategic crosses with the personal in wars that hinge on the human element. He led from the fore at key moments—from the famous crossing of the Delaware River to the Battle of Monmouth, where he singlehandedly rallied the troops, with a display of personal courage that turned the battle. Both men’s bravery, though, is not limited to the physical but is also on display in the mental realm through their difficult decisions and hard calls. Jon knew that it would divide the Night’s Watch to bring the Free Folk into an alliance, but he did it anyway. Washington knew that it would be unpopular to evacuate cities like New York and then Philadelphia, but he still made that choice, because it had to be done.
Jon’s bravery is balanced by his grasp of the war’s two crucial strategic insights. The first is a recognition of the most essential elements of the war, the key goals and actions upon which the entire conflict will turn. Prussian general and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz would undoubtedly approve.
In the American Revolution, it was Washington’s realization that to continue fighting and sustain his army was of the utmost importance. The enemy could capture the young nation’s largest cities, but these were empty losses, as long as the Continental Army remained in the fight. Washington’s key objective was to keep the war going. Similarly, Jon recognizes that survival is the essence of victory in his war. In a war for humanity, to outlast is to win.
Jon’s second realization is the crucial importance of alliances. When Jon becomes the lord commander of the Night’s Watch, he recognizes that the White Walker threat is more important than anything else. His core insight is simple and powerful—“Winter is coming. We know what’s coming with it. We can’t face it alone.”
In ruling the North, Jon leaned into alliances. In contrast to Stannis Baratheon and then Ramsay Bolton, Jon understood that even in the most hierarchical system, to follow is still a choice, so he makes a point to draw in and unite instead of command and compel. Even when he has good reason to punish the families that pulled their support from House Stark, Jon chose leniency over punishment, in part due to his moral code but also in the name of building a bigger coalition.
Jon Snow unites disparate groups, families, and banners in a way that mirrors how George Washington realized that his role was about much more than winning battles—his larger responsibility as commander was to bring together those whom he once described as “a mixed multitude of people under very little discipline, order, or government.” Washington ultimately turned this mixture into a professional and then victorious army and then into a nation. In this cause, much like Jon, Washington was willing to look past the petty jealousies from other commanders, like Continental Army generals Henry Lee and Horatio Gates, who thought he shouldn’t lead, as well as the constant swirl of unnecessary infighting and conspiracy.
The payoff for both commanders’ focus on alliance building was the ability to attract and leverage the aid of ever more varied forces from afar, which would prove crucial to victory. The Free Folk and the Knights of the Vale are akin to the disparate coalition of allies like the French, Dutch, and Spanish, who joined the fight against Great Britain. In proving their ability to build and maintain wide-ranging alliances, Washington and Snow benefited from foreign forces in a way that their foes, who repeatedly alienated allies, could not.
In the pursuit of these twin goals, neither Jon Snow nor George Washington showed perfect judgment. Each made mistakes along the way, from Washington’s early attempt to defend New York City to Jon’s hard-charging, headlong rush into battle with Ramsay Bolton. But what they did show is the key attribute of flexibility and an ability to continually learn while still in command. As Washington himself once advised, we should “derive useful lessons from past errors… for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.” When Washington realized that his soldiers could not hold key cities, he shifted to a Fabian war of delay, maneuver, and opportunistic counterattack. Then after Valley Forge and the training revolution it provided, followed by the French arrival into the war, he shifted back toward seeking major battle.
Jon Snow’s original instinct is to fight with what he has and to hold the Wall with available resources. When he sees how powerful the White Walkers are, he realizes that this approach will not work against a foe with seemingly infinite resources of (dead) manpower. He then seeks to shift the balance through new alliances (with the Free Folk and Queen Daenerys) and new weapons (dragonglass and dragons).
Compare this with how Stannis Baratheon handled his battles. Despite being, as Ser Davos Seaworth puts it, the “most experienced commander in Westeros,” Stannis was too proud and inflexible to admit that he made a major strategic miscalculation in driving his army to a snowy destruction, in much the same way the once genius but then rigid Napoleon did in Russia.
History’s great strategic leaders often look better in hindsight. George Washington was continually attacked by contemporary critics for being a “weak general,” a critique with some merit as at the time he was losing battle after battle. Indeed, Washington arguably lost more battles than any other general in American history. Jon Snow similarly seems to pale in strategic genius compared to his contemporaries and has no great victory of his own to claim.
And yet each leader brought to their roles a series of personal qualities and experiences that allowed them to succeed at what matters most, to recognize the key nature of the wars they were in, and to build the necessary alliances to achieve final strategic victory. Just as George Washington is now remembered fondly for the supreme leadership qualities he needed to win the Revolutionary War and to become the father of his country, the once discounted Bastard of Winterfell may well end up being remembered as “first in war” and “first in peace” in all the Seven Kingdoms.
Excerpted from Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict (Potomac Books, September 2019). © 2019 by Max Brooks, John Amble, M.L. Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates
P.W. Singer is a scholar on international relations, an American political scientist, and a specialist on 21st-century warfare. He is currently an editor for Popular Science and works for the New America Foundation as a strategist. He was recognized by the Smithsonian as one of the nation’s one hundred leading innovators and by Defense News as one of the one hundred most influential people in defense issues.
M.L. Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army strategist with global experience in assignments ranging from the Pentagon to Korea and Iraq to Army Space and Missile Defense Command. A nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, he has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, among other publications.