“When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is crazy.” – Dave Berry

While making a taco run with my son over the weekend, a military-themed leadership podcast was playing in the background on satellite radio. The host was telling a war story, describing in detail his actions during a combat patrol in Afghanistan. As the podcast continued, the host explained how the leadership techniques he applied in the heat of battle were just as relevant to a company CEO in the boardroom. It was a stretch, but an entertaining one.

“Do you think he’s right?” I asked. “I don’t know,” my son answered. “I mostly listen to see how much of what they say can actually be applied outside the military.”

“You know,” I said, listening to the podcast host wax eloquently about close quarters combat in the C-suite conference room, “I’ve been shot at, mortared, rocketed, been on the receiving end of more missile attacks than I can remember, and dodged a SCUD or two in my day. Aside from giving me a different stress threshold than most other people, I don’t think any of that really changes how we lead.”


The context in which we lead changes, but leadership in general stays the same. The principles are the same. The practices are the same. The people are the same. But context matters. Much of leading is maintaining an even strain, keeping your composure under stressful conditions. And, frankly, there are few situations more stressful than having to make life-and-death decisions while someone is trying to kill you.

So, context matters. A lot. Everyone has a story about the commander who stood tall in the saddle with the bullets flying. But many of also remember someone who completely lost their shit without a single bullet flying. Leadership under fire is the subject of more than a few podcasts (and books, movies, and television shows), but at its heart, it’s still leadership.


Circumstances change, people don’t. And, as more than a few of history’s great leaders have noted, we lead people.

People are strange. It’s a fact (and not just a classic Doors tune). How many times have you shared a story of a subordinate or colleague who did something so odd that it was burned into your long-term memory? I can fill a two-hour TED Talk with such stories and still have enough left over to fill a year of weekly podcast episodes. And to be fair, there are probably people who share stories of your exploits. For whatever reasons – and there are many – we tend to do some weird things from time to time.

Understanding human behavior is fundamental to leading. Good leaders want to understand why people do the things they do so they can become better leaders in their own right. That type of critical thinking is essential to dealing with the challenges people present; it helps us to predict certain behaviors and to recognize the situations where those behaviors are most likely to occur. It’s also the first step in preventing those behaviors, or at least limiting the potential damage they create.

The immutable rules

In the past forty years, I’ve served in three professions: the fire service, the military, and higher education. In each of those professions, I’ve seen the same people – the faces changed, but the behaviors were the same. Along the way, I developed an unwritten set of rules that helped me to better deal with the particular challenges those people presented.

1. The 95/5 Rule.

This was something pointed out to me by my first platoon sergeant more than 35 years ago, and it holds true still today. As a leader, you will spend 95% of your time dealing with 5% of your people. And not the good 5%. Through it all, you have to bear in mind that the time spent dealing with them means that you will have to work to find the time for those who deserve it most.

2. The Compass Rule.

If you don’t set the azimuth, the vision for the team, people will get lost. As a leader, your first responsibility is to give people purpose and direction, then motivate them to the goal. If you aren’t the compass for the organization, someone else will be.

3. The Idiot Rule.

There is always one more idiot on your team than you planned for. No matter how clear your instructions, regardless of how well you explain everything, someone will always get it wrong. As a leader, it’s your job to find ways to mitigate their impact on your mission.

4. The Jealousy Rule.

Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate. And the more successful you are, the more jealousy will inspire your enemies to action. If people envy you, they will go out of their way to make you look bad. You have to be careful not to help them.

5. The Rule of Diminishing Returns.

Also known as the “good enough” rule, it’s important for leaders to know when the added time and energy committed to something won’t yield returns worth the effort. You can drive your people for that last little bit that really doesn’t matter that much, but it comes at a cost.

6. The Slacker’s Rule.

People will only do as much as you check. If you just assume things are being done or standards are being followed, they probably aren’t. Get out and check on things. Ask probing questions. Don’t let the slackers ruin your day.

7. The Rule of Standards.

If there’s a corollary to the Slacker’s Rule, it’s this: If you can’t (or won’t) meet the standards you set, no one else will, either. Or, worse yet, they will emulate your inability to follow your own standards.

8. The Diva Rule.

There is always someone in every organization who demands to be the center of attention. They will act out, speak out, and do whatever it takes to draw focus on them. This is never a good thing.

9. The Rule of Facts.

The facts, while interesting, are irrelevant. While most people are convinced when presented with factual information, that doesn’t hold true for everyone. Know who those people are and how their perceptions might impact the organization.

10. The Golden Rule.

In general, leadership often boils down to this one rule: treat others how you want to be treated. If you want respect, treat others with respect. If you want honesty, be honest with others. If you want people to listen to you, listen to them. Put your people first. It’s not rocket science.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.