Kelly’s Rules of Leadership

Updated: May 18, 2009





Nick did a nice job of hitting the basics tenets of leadership from the eighteen million books on the subject from the West Point Plebe reading list and his time as a junior officer.


Keep in mind, though, that he also thinks men can wear pink. While I’m certainly not claiming this as a complete list, here’s my “old man” addendum to Nick’s list…and when I say addendum, I mean here are some real gems from someone with two decades of what matters most-practical experience. 

Know what it truly means to “take care of troops.”

I had heard the phrase, “take care of your troops” for years, but never actually quantified it until a Battalion Commander sat me down in an OPD and laid it all out on paper. Ironically he was a pretentious nerd, so this was his one moment out of the douchapotamus tank. Taking care of troops is not limited to spending umpteen hours in the field or turning some poor finance clerk into pink mist when a soldier isn’t getting paid. Taking care of troops is much more holistic than that. It’s making sure they’re physically fit with a long-term PT program that’s as individualized as possible. It’s making sure their living conditions don’t resemble Cabrini Green. It’s making sure they know how to identify a suspicious man in the streets and escalate a conflict from “Get on the ground” to “Get a bodybag.” It’s making sure the chow in the mess hall isn’t dumpster debris. It’s making sure they’re tactically and technically proficient at their job and know the meaning of one shot, one kill. It’s ensuring they have a will and updated SGLI. It’s making sure their equipment isn’t rusting hulks of T-Rex poop. It’s setting all the conditions for them to be a great soldier and more. There are a hundred little facets to taking care of troops that have to be known and lived. It’s not a cool mantra to throw around when you want to seem like you give a shit in front of the old man.  

There are two sides to every story.

A lot of your time as a leader will be consumed doing the things you detest, but they’re absolutely essential to taking care of troops. UCMJ is the worst. I would rather pluck the underwear out of Tommy Batboy’s ass crack than end someone’s career or even set them back in their path to earning stripes, but sometimes it’s justified and even necessary. Always remember, though, that there are two sides to every story and you must listen to both. It is a pernicious leader who assumes the guilt or innocence of a soldier before both sides of the story have been fully vetted. Even if your First Sergeant barges into your office proclaiming “Sir, we gotta get rid of this piece of shit!” Stop, think, and gather all the facts. Never come to a conclusion or form a judgment until you’re certain of the truth.

Be consistent.

If you punish a troop for an offense then you can’t let another troop off the hook for the same infraction unless you want your company to become the cub scout den of the Battalion. I had a Brigade Commander who had a favorite Captain. One day the golden boy got drunk and took a swing at a Major. It was clearly a violation of UCMJ as well as thoroughly embarrassing since he missed his target completely. No matter how much the Commander liked this guy he knew he had to throw the book at him or it would have sent a message to the rest of the Brigade-as long as you’re one of my boys, you’re untouchable. That’s Cosa Nostra leadership, not US military. The standards are the same from Private to General, so you have to be consistent in every aspect.


But don’t have absolutes (unless it’s the Swedish Vodka variety).

Don’t confuse consistency with absolutes. When I took command of a company I said, “Anyone who gets a DUI is toast. No questions asked.” That was stupid. Halfway through command I had a troop get a DUI, but there were extenuating circumstances. He got drunk and then got in his car and went to sleep in the back seat because he knew driving was a bad idea. Great judgment call on his part. But since it was December he put the keys in the ignition to get some heat going before falling asleep. When a cop found him, he got busted for DUI because in the state of Georgia having the keys in the ignition is enough to charge the driver with DUI. He was an E7 with a distinguished career and was one of the most trustworthy guys I ever knew. My statement that I would max out anyone who got a DUI proved to be an albatross around my neck and put me in a bad position. I learned that every situation is different and having an absolute stance on anything is about as smart as not wrapping your little ranger in MOPP 4 at a Haitian brothel.


Being responsible means you have to be an asshole sometimes.

This can also be worded as, “NEVER make a decision because it’s popular” and goes back to Nick’s point about doing the right thing always (I gotta throw the man a bone once in a while). True story-After a Field Training Exercise my Battalion had all our weapons turned in to the arms room except one-the Battalion Commander’s driver-who was on the road driving the old man around. The whole Battalion waited and waited for this guy to bring his weapon in so we could be released. Those are two hours I will never recover. As the Battalion Executive Officer (the XO-the second in command for you non-Army types), I could have sent them all home and been the cool guy, but it was against our SOP to release anyone until every weapon was accounted for. So we waited while I lit up every cell phone and radio net in Washington state to get Specialist Dumbass to bring his weapon to the arms room. Don’t succumb to peer pressure and make a decision to look cool.


Don’t have a zero defect mentality.

Throughout the 1990’s, when the Army was mostly in garrison for years at a time and we had little to do but have meetings and come up with sadistic details for troops who got extra duty. A pervasive attitude of “zero defects” emerged. If everything wasn’t perfect, then you were a shitbag. This was especially true at the company commander level because every company had to report stats like reenlistment, PT, weapons qualifications, USR, maintenance, exorcisms performed, blah blah blah. If the Battalion Commander saw one statistic from your company that was off, then your command mysteriously ended prematurely. It was stupid and we finally came around to realize that things break and shit happens. Having perfect stats only meant you were hiding something or fudging the numbers. It is simply unrealistic to expect your subordinates to be perfect. Instead, expect them to handle leadership crises correctly. When Private Snuffy sets his barracks room on fire, does Sergeant Smuckatelli handle it professionally or does he sit on his ass and throw a coat of paint on it? When Specialist Jones can’t figure out how to clear a weapon jam, does his Squad Leader show him or ignore him? Subordinate leaders must be willing and able to deal with issues quickly and efficiently instead of expecting them to never happen. Judge your subordinate leaders by how they deal with situations, not that they let one happen. Many times it’s out of their control.


Have the moral courage to speak up.

You’re in a meeting. Someone says, “let’s have a Battalion testicle licking contest” and everyone agrees. Before they get up and leave, if you don’t protest the group consensus and refuse to taste sweaty balls, then you’re a weak sycophant. That’s bad juju for an aspiring leader.  If you’re present when a bad decision is made, then you’re part of the problem. You can’t be a mousy, quiet guy (or gal) who lets others walk off a cliff without stopping them. This is especially true of Executive Officers. A good Company or Battalion XO simply MUST tell his boss when he’s fucked up. As a Battalion XO I had a Commander who was always late to meetings. The entire Battalion staff and commanders would wait for him well past the start time of every meeting. Finally after being 30 minutes late one day I pulled him aside and told him how he was wasting an average of 10 man hours a week by making everyone wait for him instead of working in their offices or training troops. Telling your boss he’s wrong is always never fun and I expected a Bloods versus Crips throwdown, but I was right and he knew it. In the end nothing changed and I learned that some people go right back to their bad habits (think Kirsti Alley and Weight Watchers), but I did the right thing.


Support your chain of command even when you don’t want to.

No matter how stupid a command decision might seem to you, you are bound by UCMJ to follow it unless it’s illegal or jeopardizes the safety of your troops. If the Battalion Commander orders everyone above the rank of E5 to be qualified as Tugboat Captains, then get a bright orange life vest and let your stomach grow until it droops over your dungarees. Support it and deal with it. The last thing you should do is announce your displeasure over a command decision to your soldiers. Let’s say a Company Commander suddenly tells you that he wants to see higher weapons qualification numbers from your platoon and tells you to add more range time to your calendar instead of training on the tasks you feel are more important. First outline in plain facts to him why you disagree (without using the words nefarious and Assholian). But if he won’t change his mind, turn around, move out and do it. Under no circumstances should you go back to your platoon and tell them what a douche he is for forcing you to go out to the range instead of work on CQC or convoy planning. Keep it to yourself and support your chain of command.


Support your troops even when you don’t want to.

Sometimes you have to endure personal embarrassment to support your troops. Smile and deal with it. I had an NCO who insisted on putting the company through Tae Bo for PT one day. I agreed to it and for an hour we were the laughing stock of Fort Stewart. Every platoon in the brigade ran by throwing mock kicks and limp wristed punches to mock us as we danced to a Billy Blanks CD. I felt like Bill Clinton caught with an intern (wait…that might be the cool part of being President), but I stood in the back of the formation giving it my all because he insisted it was a good workout. It wasn’t and we never did it again, but for sixty minutes I supported him the best I could.


Bitch in private and praise in public.

Some people think it’s an effective learning tool to embarrass a soldier in front of his peers in order to get him to change his negative behavior. Those people swear Tupac is still alive and think sex can last more than eight minutes (Crazy talk!). All it does is ostracize the problem soldier from the rest of his unit. Don’t get me wrong, soldiers who need an attitude adjustment should get one from an NCO named Spartacus who has prior convictions and emotional damage, but it should always be behind closed doors. Likewise a troop who deserves a pat on the back should get it in front of his peers as publicly as possible.


Sometimes fighting is alright.

Elton John was right. I had three troops go out on the town one night. Soldier A (drunk) insisted on driving Soldier B (drunk) and Soldier C (sober) home. When Soldier A refused to give up the keys to his car, Soldier C knocked him clean out and drove them all home safely. I gave him an Army Achievement Medal for looking out for his buddies.

Get Kelly’s book, “Title Shot: Into the Shark Tank”, at RangerUp.com





  1. 1Sgt Livesay

    May 19, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Good Points. But every NCO should be looking out for their troops. As a first sergeant, my job was to look out for the enlisted, and to train the officers in the way they should lead. Sometimes, that even meant taking the Colonel out back, away from the unit, and going: “Boss, you ain’t gonna like this, but……”

    Taking care of the troops ensures the mission gets done.

    1Sgt Livesay

  2. blueback

    May 19, 2009 at 10:40 am

    This was well done; particularly in regards to your focus on decision making. Trying to figure out when to instruct your superiors, how to follow orders you disagree with, and somehow attempting to influence (or even control) the environment your troops exist it. . .there really aren’t any rules for that sort of things. All you can do is help someone crystallize the concept in their own mind and I think you did a good job of helping define and illustrate the issue.

  3. doctorsandman

    May 19, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Fun and informative. Not in the armed forces buy these are universal lessons. This guy can write: good thoughts, not too conceited or too self-deprecating. More stories from Kelly!

  4. Oldud

    May 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Great job! I have used just about every one of “Kelly’s Rules” and had just about every one of them used on me; sometimes to my embarassment…but justified. “Douchapotamus tank”, I love it!

  5. Nicole

    May 19, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    I wish this list were published (and Nick’s list) to my pansy-ass boss here at my job who thinks he’s “the shizz” because he was a security guard in Sacramento 15 years ago.

  6. CJ

    May 19, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Great points, all, sir. We disagree slightly on minor topics, but very good advice indeed. I wrote a piece today along similar lines called “Secret of My Success”. I’m a 1SG with less than 15 years in (I’ve been an E8 for three years). I’d be interested in your thoughts. I’ll go back and add a link to this one on my post.

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