Rules for Any Leaders, Rule 1

If You're Not Always Fighting for Your People, You're Wrong



Are you or have you ever been a boss or been someone who has a boss?

Chances are, the answer is yes. If so, then this series of essays is for you.

Way back in March 2021, a Twitter user who goes by “Angry Staff Officer” (@pptsapper) posted a pithy and insightful list of “Rules for Army Leaders.” As I am sure you have already surmised, these rules, though specifically addressed to Army leaders, readily apply to any military leader, such as Navy leaders or Space Force leaders (though Space Force rucksacks may be weightless), but did you guess that they also apply just as well to any leader in any walk of life, including civilian bosses?

Over several (uh, five) consecutive weeks we will continue to take a look at each of these rules in turn and apply them to your experience with daily bossing, be you a bosser or a bossee.

Rule 1

If You're Not Always Fighting for Your People, You're Wrong

If you are a boss or any sort of leader, whether you are aware or not, a big part of your job is protecting your employees and colleagues. Some days, most days, doing so is the most important thing you can do. You fight to actively promote your people’s ideas, work, and wellbeing, and you fight to protect them from outside menaces, including your own boss(es) and … wait for it … yourself. Good bosses put themselves out there for their people, and yeah it is hard. But that is why you get the big bucks right?

If you are bossed, you have every right to expect to be championed and protected so long as you reasonably uphold your end of the bargain as an employee. Consider this essay and its successors a guide for what to expect from your boss. If you are doing your job up to snuff, and your boss is not fighting for you, get a better boss.

Some time ago, I wrote about the debilitating effects of bosses who point fingers as a habit. Good bosses, I wrote, seek to solve problems first, and casting aspersions most often is neither necessary nor wise. Fighting for your people means not impulsively pointing fingers at them, but it also means standing between your people and anyone else who would unduly point fingers at them, even your own boss. I call it being a human heat shield, and, trust me, it can be painful. If it helps you bear the suffering, imagine instead all that harm being endured by someone even more helpless. Not serving as a heat shield, to quote a common but trenchant phrase and to confoundingly mix my metaphors, is throwing them under the bus. Don’t.

In another piece I advocated for always starting with yes. Bosses who approach their people and their ideas with positivity increase job satisfaction and, in my experience, get a lot more done better. Fighting for your people also involves fighting for their ideas, supporting and advocating, and giving sufficient credit where it is due.

Above all, though, bosses need to be most diligent in protecting their people from themselves. All employees must recognize that everyone, even the boss, is entitled to be in a bad mood, a funk, a dark place. Everyone is entitled from time to time to be under the weather, under water, under the gun. It is called being human, and it is inevitable. A good boss, though, will actively monitor his or her behavior and check any nascent bad habits. One of the best ways to do this is to observe how others behave around you. For instance, if you notice that your people or colleagues are acting overly cautious in your presence, you might want to explore why. Are you behaving badly? Almost certainly, yes. Are you yelling? If so, then go to hell.

Another trick for checking yourself is to ask trusted employees and colleagues to observe your behavior. By trusted, I mean the ones who have seen you at your best and worst and are most likely to speak the truth directly to your face. The ones you regularly turn to for advice. If such an empowered employee sets a mysterious meeting with you, be sure to wear your thick skin to work that day, but also be sure to allow the truth to enter your thick skull. Pettiness, knee-jerk defensiveness, and vengeance are never appropriate, and less so when a trusted employee intrepidly approaches you with constructive criticism or just to vent. Times like these are primed for you to stuff your ego in a sack and throw it in the river.

Milquetoast or Toaster

Bosses who don’t fight for their people tend to come in two categories. The first is more rare: the milquetoast boss who is afraid to upset or confront anyone, who thinks the best course of action is to pretend that everything is just a-okay all the time. These feckless bosses, though they mean well and are personable, inevitably expose their people to all sorts of harm from others to the extent that they may as well just commit the harm themselves.

The other type is far more and far too prevalent. These beasts land somewhere on the spectrum between superficially nice but wholly about self-preservation to just plain mean. Whatever space they occupy on this spectrum, they are mere bullies even if they outsource their bullying to other employees. And, as we know, workplace bullies are definitionally incompetent.

So that’s the morality of bosses fighting for their people, but what of the practicality? What is the benefit? Bosses who fight deserve loyalty and respect and tend to get them, but they should not expect them. Yes, such bosses foster workplaces where trust, job satisfaction, dedication, creativity, and high productivity often prevail. But for the boss, it needs to be all about the doing, not the what for. Good bosses who fight for their people have one primary goal, one guiding philosophy that shapes their every move. There is one purpose to their treatment of their people and one treatment their people deserve, and achieving it significantly advances the likelihood that everyone will do great work.

Just be decent.

Next Thursday: Rule 2, “Trust lasts longer than ammo.”

Query of the Week

The Fight for Your People Challenge

Have you ever experienced a boss protecting you? If so, what did it do for your morale? Have you ever had a boss not protect you? What was the result?

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