A Tale of Two Wolves: The Leadership Styles of Jon Snow and Sansa Stark
Something that has been fiercely debated among Game of Thrones fans is who is the better leader of the North: Jon Snow or Sansa Stark?
Both characters start out the show as secondary characters, people who seemingly not much is expected from: especially Sansa. Jon is the bastard son of an otherwise-noble lord, who is sent to a god-forsaken landscape, to be most likely forgotten. And Sansa is a spoiled, rich brat with her head in the clouds about living the good life, married to a king. Despite contrasting settings, both characters aren't really set up for high expectations and live in the shadow of their other family members: Ned, Catelyn, Robb, and arguably even Arya.
Yet as the series progresses, things shift dramatically for them, with the star players either being killed off or far removed from the field, while both characters are thrown into extreme circumstances beyond their control, trying to survive. These challenges forge Jon and Sansa into powerful leaders in the vein of the elder Starks, but in very different ways.
Half of Sansa’s arc is being the victim of abusive men and a pawn of political scheming. She inadvertently caused the death of her father and watched him get beheaded, and her family scattered. She is the target of abuse from her betrothed, King Joffrey, because of the subsequent war that follows, started by her brother, Robb. She gets caught in the terror of siege warfare in Kings Landing and also tries to survive it’s Machiavellian antics. During this entire ordeal, she does what she can to survive, keeping her feelings and intentions close to the chest and saying what she needs to say to stay out of harm's way. Though there are glimpses of a much stronger will, Sansa is still mostly living on survival instinct and the kindness of a few.
Fortunately, those few characters are much more confident and educated in how to effectively navigate the political jungle successfully. Tyrion Lannister, Olenna and Margaery Tyrell, for example. She even passively learns from her family’s enemies, Cersei and Tywin Lannister. Her education is slow, with many road bumps, but as she says later on, “she does learn” under the radar. A fair amount of luck is on her side as Joffrey decides to marry the more politically adept Margery, leaving Sansa betrothed to Tyrion, who is the kindest person to her in a world where she is otherwise alone.
By the time of Joffrey's assassination, she is no longer the naive girl who came to the capital with lofty dreams, but a somewhat skilled survivalist that is beginning to learn the art of seeing past fair appearances and discerning true motives. However, her harsh experiences are kicked into overdrive when she is secretly removed from Kings Landing by Petyr Baelish, Game of Thrones ultimate manipulator. Under his somewhat creepy tutelage, Sansa begins to learn the true ins-and-outs of the game and how to succeed without getting crushed by it. Yet she is still naive, dependent upon others to show her the way or help her. It’s after her marriage to Ramsey Bolton that she sheds this last bit of her old self: horribly.
Sansa survives, and is able to meet up with her half-brother, Jon Snow, in time for taking back their family’s realm from Ramsey. Sansa now begins to apply the hellish lessons she has learned, but runs into two problems. One being that she feels her experience is being ignored by Jon and the others, and two, that when directly asked by Jon if she has better options for their plans, remains silent. Sansa then makes her move independently, sending a letter to the Vale for reinforcements that ultimately saves the later Battle of the Bastards.
Despite her contribution however, Jon gets all the credit, though not to any fault of his own: even being made the new King of the North. Sansa shows signs of the same ambition that her previous tutors flaunted: ambitions that Baelish tries to exploit. However, she never betrays Jon by trying to take the control, and even has Baelish executed when she finds out about his part in her father’s death.
Later, the two appear to reconcile, but clash later over the arrival of Daenerys, who Jon has now sworn fealty to. Sansa feels the North should no longer serve other kings and remain independent. Her focus is the realm of the Starks that they have struggled so hard to regain, and taking care of it which she excels at. Jon’s focus however is the coming war with the supernatural White Walkers, who care nothing for the political allegiances of Westeros, and he is willing to do what it takes to defeat them: Even bending the knee.
Sansa again obeys, but upon meeting the powerful queen of the east, she quickly determines that she is a future threat, no different from the power hungry rulers of Kings Landing: but with dragons. Jon’s wisdom proves correct during the Battle of Winterfell, with Sansa seemingly caught in disbelief at the supernatural. However, she still distrusts Daenerys, even after the victory. Seeing too many red flags, she correctly calls out Jon that his reasons for serving the dragon queen were for more than just winning the war with the Night King.
By now, Sansa had contented herself with obeying her king brother, no longer subverting his decisions. That changes with the revelation that Jon is in fact the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, a fact Jon wants kept secret as he has no desire to rule. Now Sansa decides pulls a page from the deceased Baelish, telling Tyrion who is now Hand of the Queen, Jon’s secret. She then sits back and lets events unfold. By the final episode, Sansa comes down south, weeks after Jon has killed Daenerys and is now held prisoner along with Tyrion. In a callback to the actions of her other brother, Robb, she arrives with an army to free her cousin by force, if need be.
The final negotiation spares further bloodshed, but Sansa declares that based on the North’s casualties sustained from years of subsequent wars, will stay independent. Though she apologizes to Jon later on for betraying his trust again, she also states her belief that it needed to be done and she knew no other way to do it. At which point even Jon acknowledges that she is the better ruler.
Sansa’s style of leadership is blend of honor and practicality. She doesn’t show off her authority, though she clearly believes in it, preferring to move pieces behind the scenes quietly. First through advisement, then confrontation, and then if they fail, through subterfuge and ultimately, force. Her moves are subtle and small rather than aggressive and heavy-handed.
However, she only plays the latter card if she feels it's absolutely necessary. Sansa also plays that card unilaterally, not relying or indicating to her others her intentions, much to the detriment at times of those who trust her, particularly Jon.
She is tempted by the trappings of power, but isn't corrupted by it, still ruling by the decency of her father, Ned. Moreover, she feels that it's her duty as a Stark to rule over and protect her people’s interest. This isn't a lust for power as she has been exposed to and taught over the years, but sense of responsibility.
The extreme circumstances that formed Jon’s leadership style were very different from King’s Landing. Having started out as a Night’s Watch member, he approaches leadership not as a nobleman, but as soldier. He was after all never in line to rule Winterfell and didn't want to, content with letting Robb rule. His tutelage was serving under others and that quickly humbled any sense of entitlement he may have felt before he arrived at the Wall.
The cold weather of the North taught him to live by duty and example rather than by bloodlines and entitlement. The intrigues of politics and personal gain had no place there, so Jon was therefore ignorant of those realities later on. Force of will and loyalty to those under them is what defined both the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch. So it's under these circumstances that his leadership is honed. Not only is it trained there however, but it is forced upon him. Jon sacrifices the love of his life for his duty, risk his life on countless occasions, defends Castle Black from invasion, and reluctantly becomes commander of the Night’s Watch. All of these are not survival techniques in political games and knives in the dark, but survival techniques against the elements, battle, and the supernatural itself. And the knives will stab you up front rather than in the back while in broad daylight. All this comes into play when he becomes the King of the North.
Jon’s approach is blunt and direct: What is the immediate priority? What resources are available? Deal with the issue at hand.
Jon doesn’t think about the ‘what happens afterwards,’ but rather lives in the moment. He is tunneled-visioned to the most immediate and greatest problem because nothing else will matter if that isn't resolved. This practicality also plays to his honor and morality. He doesn’t concern himself with backroom politics or backstabbing or allegiances beyond the immediate concern. He doesn't worry about the Stark family legacy because in his mind, they are impractical and just titles. He says as much several times, only appealing to that logic when he needs allies who can't see past that, or when legacy is pressed on him to ignore the immediate threat, as what happened with his first meeting with Daenerys.
If anything, these impracticalities are a burden to him, forced upon him by the situation at hand and often at odds with his morality. This is nowhere clearer than when it's revealed he’s the true heir to the Iron Throne. If there is no immediate problem and no one is at risk, Jon doesn't want the responsibility. The irony is that it's exactly this trait that makes him so charismatic and make people around him want him as a leader: he shuns power whereas others run to it, including Robb and Sansa.
"The foundations of their styles are nearly the same. Rather, it's that each has a specific skill set to where their ruling styles apply. "
Same Pack, Different Breeds
Both Starks try to act benevolently with their authority like Ned Stark. They don’t lord it over others around them. Both have also seen how power has been abused and the horrible results it has inflicted upon others. Their styles diverge from here though.
Sansa is primarily a cynical, low-key, power player. She mistrusts the preaching of others and looks to their true motivations behind the scenes to decide how to handle them. Moreover, this is primarily governed by her loyalty to her family and the sense of duty she feels to restore the North. Everything else is secondary, even the White Walker invasion. She’s steely in her temperament because she’s had an uphill battle because of coming from a disgraced family and being a woman in general. She doesn’t like using deceit as some of her tutors do, but is not beyond using it if she feels it's necessary: though this is also tempered by her morality.
Yet, this also makes it harder for others to trust and follow her because of how close she plays things to the chest. Her authenticity is as hard to read as those she distrusts. Sansa’s political education did not include leading from the front lines and the charisma and openness needed to do so. Rather, such respect was entitled, and it's a shock to her when she finds that the Northerners don’t defer to this. Especially as Jon is made king, with no credit is given to her by the other lords. To her credit though, Sansa does overcome this and eventually does earn that respect by nature of her grit.
Jon in contrast, "knows nothing" when it comes to courtroom maneuvering and wields authority like a man on the ground, in the thick of things where everyone can see him. He’s a blue collar worker who happens to have some perks from his birth right, but never uses them. This talent/disdain for power draws people to him, even when he makes mistakes. He’s forgiven for them because he was right out there in the front with everyone else, paying the same price. While he is good as a tactical leader, he lacks the long-term vision and discernment skills of his cousin.
Sansa maybe tunneled-visioned when it comes to family history, but Jon is equally flawed when it comes to discerning the ramifications of his actions. The primary example being his refusal to see Daenerys as a threat and a tyrant: first because of the White walkers and later because of his own feelings. Though he can break out of this, it is only with immense difficulty and at great cost to himself. This flaw is further enhanced by his own distaste of holding authority. Jon seems more at home with taking orders rather than giving them.
Many fans criticize him for this, but it's this trait that kept him focused on the White Walker threat, refusing to be distracted by the local politics while at the same time, indirectly promoting his integrity that won over so many people. Even his enemies come to recognize and respect this.
Neither Jon nor Sansa are bad rulers. The foundations of their styles are nearly the same. Rather, it's that each has a specific skill set to where their ruling styles apply. And that skill set leaves holes in other places where their experience did not cover.
So simply put: Sansa is the person you want on the throne dealing schemers and potential and outside threats, while Jon is the leader you want at your side because he knows what to do in the moment and will share the risk with you, having your back.
© 2019 Jamal Smith