If there is a single golden rule of leadership, it’s something my first platoon sergeant emphasized to a new lieutenant more than 30 years ago: If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. With a cigarette in one hand and a crooked finger pointed in the other, he would share the wisdom of his 15 years (which, honestly, seemed like a lot to me at the time) leading soldiers around the world. Those lessons became the foundation of my own leadership philosophy, underpinning everything that followed for the next three decades.

Leadership, it seems, is often a tale of two perspectives. On one hand, you have leaders focused on their followers, leaders who understand the meaning of those all-important words. On the other hand, you find leaders so caught up with being the boss that they forget about those they are tasked with leading. They enjoy being the leader a lot more than doing the leading. Subordinates yearn for one and dread the other.


Most organizations and any leader worth listening to will tell you that a “people first” mentality is crucial to success, but actually following through is often a different matter altogether. Over the course of the next two years, my platoon sergeant continued to build on that foundation, stressing in his own unique style—in other words, swearing constantly—that our troops always came first. It wasn’t negotiable.

Among the many lessons he passed on during those two years, three in particular reinforced the concept of “people first.” The mission was important, but we needed a cohesive team to get the job done. And that meant prioritizing their welfare.

1. It’s about them, not about you.

Never let your ego get between you and the people you lead. Be compassionate, stay humble. They come first.

2. Circulate constantly.

In the business world, it’s called management by walking around (MBWA); in the military, it’s simply battlefield circulation. Spend time with your people. Get to know them. Build meaningful relationships.

3. Be firm, be fair.

Standards and discipline are cornerstones to any successful organization. Set firm, fair standards and be consistent in enforcing them.

The key to a people first approach is, obviously, putting people first. But that’s often easier said than done, something most of us can attest to. We all know people who profess these things but fail to come through in the clutch. Leaders who talk the talk yet struggle to walk the walk.


If you truly want to be the leader your team deserves, you have to be capable of more than talk. One of the common tropes in contemporary leadership literature is “genuine.” People want leaders who are genuine, leaders who “bring the best of who they are” to the workplace and sincerely commit to “the service of leading others toward a desirable destination.” They want competent leaders who truly care about their teams. They want genuine leaders who have mastered boss mode.

1. Lead by example.

This is where it starts. Set the standard, then live by it.

2. Acknowledge effort.

Everyone needs to know what they’re doing matters. Say it. Sometimes, all it takes is a pat on the back and “You’re doing a great job.” The rest takes care of itself.

3. Reward accomplishments.

In the same vein, don’t be stingy about rewarding good work. Consider it an investment in the future of your team.

4. Provide overhead cover.

Despite the adage, shit doesn’t have to roll downhill. You’re the boss. Defend your team.

5. Foster growth.

Your best team members won’t stay forever. Sponsor and advocate for their career development and they’ll reward you with loyalty that extends beyond their time on your team.

6. Build the bench.

Part of your job is building future leaders. Invest in the growth and development of your team. Help them set goals. Provide them opportunities to build their talents.

7. Inspire and motivate.

There’s a stark difference between leading and cheerleading, but a good boss finds a way to do both.

8. Set the culture.

Bill Marklein, the founder of Employ Humanity, captured this perfectly: “Culture is how employee’s hearts and stomachs feel about Monday morning on Sunday night.” Foster a culture that makes people look forward to Mondays.

9. Underwrite mistakes.

People are human. They’ll make mistakes. Be the boss who accepts those mistakes and helps people learn from them, not the boss who goes ballistic every time something goes wrong.

10. Mentoring is a lifelong pursuit, not something that only occurs in the workplace.

Be the leader your people can count on for guidance and support long after they’ve moved on.

Ultimately, activating boss mode comes down to embracing the golden rule of leadership: If you take care of them, they’ll take care of you. It’s walking the walk. It’s putting people first and genuinely meaning it. That’s how you become the leader you need to be, the leader your team deserves.


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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 co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.