Kill the Boy: Lessons in Leadership from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire”

“Kill the boy and let the man be born.” This is Maester Aemon’s advice to Jon Snow in A Dance with Dragons. (113) By Samwell Tarly’s political maneuverings, Jon Snow is saved from Alliser Thorne and Janos Slynt’s deadly intent by his ascent to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, at least for a time. There is little doubt he, like Daenerys and Robb, is unprepared for leadership. Although Jon and Robb had it a lot better than Daenerys with their upbringing at Winterfell and her upbringing by abuse by Viserys, they do not have the maturity, experience, or knowledge of the hard game of politics necessary to win at the game of thrones. As a result, they die. But, if there is one thing we can count on, it is that Tumblr’s finest will not understand what Aemon was trying to tell Jon. (


The rest of the advice is critical: “You will have little joy of your command, but I think you have the strength in you to do the things that must be done.” (113) It was not eliminate your friends, forget who you were, and abandon your family. It is, arguably, the most important lesson in “A Song of Ice and Fire”. Maturity comes at a cost. Life hits you hard sometimes. You cannot curl up into a ball and ask for your mother. Similarly, you cannot ride off and slaughter everything in your path. Being a man or a woman, an adult, is accepting life’s disappointments, injustices, and losses and moving on. You must do what is right while thinking through the issues calmly, decisively, with a search for insight.


Daenerys commanded Meereen be peaceful. She murdered slave masters and called it justice. She moved first and hoped for the best, but did not prepare for the worst. She had no exit strategy. She then compromised, became something she was not by marrying Hizdahr. She chained up her children, the dragons Viserion and Rhaegal. She lost Drogon. Daenerys had lost herself. She had to go for a walk about in order to find herself.


“The dragons know who you are. Do you?” Quaithe asked her. “Dragons plant no trees,” Daenerys concludes. Correct. Dragons are for war, for conquering, and for subjugating to a common will. Let the farmers plant trees. Let the forest rangers plant trees. Daenerys does not have the gift for governing day-to-day. So, she should delegate that to others while she looks after the big picture at which she has a gift. Unlike the Meereeneese Blot blog’s assertion that Daenerys is turning into a destructive force, her path to liberator is now clear. She will prevail. But, only after she weds the kraken will she turn towards the blue flower.


As for that blue flower growing out of a chink of ice, he too had a steep learning curve. Per Max Weber and James Q. Wilson’s studies of leadership, while Daenerys is a charismatic leader, Jon is working as a bureaucratic innovator. The Night’s Watch is weak in numbers, commitment to mission, and esprit d’ corps. The Free Folk/Wildlings have all three, but need a place south of the Wall. Jon’s journey of discovery Fern Gully/Dances with Wolves/Avatar style has given him a foot in both camps. Unlike in the show, Jon is working within the system as Lord Commander to integrate the Free Folk into the Wall’s defenses. But, he is too trusting, brusque, and top down to properly manage the transformation of the Night’s Watch from its mission creep into fighting Wildlings back to fighting the Others. Because this is George R. R. Martin, he gets Caesared rather than displaced.


Jon has not followed Aemon’s advice in point of fact. He disregarded it entirely. He allowed his boyhood commitments to overrule duty, oaths, and higher calling. Although integrating the Free Folk into the realm without getting sufficient buy in from the Night’s Watch was a contributing factor, it was not the precipitating factor or proximate cause as lawyers say. Jon violated his oath to the Night’s Watch when he proposed to lead a force of Free Folk against the Boltons in the Shieldhall. The Night’s Watch is now his family and they take no part. They hold no lands, bear no crowns, take no wife, father no children, receive no glory. They are the shield that guards the realm of men. By declaring war on the Boltons and proposing a march on Winterfell, Jon refused to kill the boy – the bastard son of Eddard Stark, the brother to Arya, and the one who called Winterfell home. Jon violated Aemon’s advice. Thus, he had to pay the price.


Once again, we must wonder why Tumblr bloggers are getting this wrong. The advice is neither hard to understand or unusual. The misreading of the advice into “deny who you are” seems to be of a mindset common among young people. They think the call to maturity is to deny them a fundamental part of their identity – their jejune natures. There is a saying that youth is wasted on the young. In my experience, so is advice, on me, on others. Usually, you have to learn it by doing. We can only hope those learning experiences are not fatal.


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