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10 Rules All Good Leaders Follow

12 min

What makes a good leader, and how can we work to become one? This article covers ten fundamental rules that every aspiring leader ought to follow to become one of the greats.

The subject of leadership can cause quite a bit of debate. Often, we see great leaders depicted in many of our favorite films or read about them in books and stories that we grew to love.

As I've grown to appreciate the art of leadership, my thoughts and feelings have altered considerably, and I have noticed that people often mistake leadership for management in today's world to a staggering degree. Even in the military, an apparatus I have served for several years,  I see so many "leaders" rise through the ranks when they seldom showcase genuine leadership qualities fundamental to its practice.

A leadership dynamic exists in virtually every organization we can think of. This post is meant to provide my thoughts and feelings on what makes a good leader, but it is also intended to set the record straight as I still feel that the world has become a bit confused about the difference between leaders and managers.


"Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important... they do not mean to do harm... they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves." - T. S. Eliot

Everyone wants to feel important, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs and countless other studies have shown us that the need to feel valued is natural for humans. Some people, however, want to feel powerful because they take themselves too seriously.

This false sense of self-importance comes from a person's insecurities. They often care too much about what others think of them, and when challenged, they will lash out or remind other people that they are in charge. John C. Maxwell, renowned leadership guru,  calls these types of people "positional leaders" because they value their territory over teamwork.

"The position does not make the leader; the leader makes the position." - John C. Maxwell

I have encountered many of these types of people; worse, I have caught myself exhibiting behaviors commensurate with positional leaders. These people allow their rank, position, image, and status to define them.

But good leaders are the ones who don't care about any of that because they know that building trust and working hard to gain influence over others is what really makes a great leader. Anyone can hold a position of power or authority, but true leaders are the ones who inspire people to take action and breakthrough obstacles so that the team is successful.

In other words, great leaders take their jobs, their followers, and their initiatives seriously; they just don't take themselves seriously (nor should you or I).


"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first." - Mark Twain

Let's face it; humans are selfish (some more than others). But the simple truth is that it's not about you (or me, for that matter). When I was young and beginning to assume responsibilities and embark on my earlier leadership journies, my father told me to avoid words such as I, Me, and Mine. "Strike them from your vocabulary," he told me, "because no one wants to follow someone who is only in it for themselves." That wisdom holds up over a decade later.

Good leaders need to understand that bringing out the best in others means that we need to be interested in what they are passionate about. As I have served in the Navy, I have been continually perturbed by the model of leadership which is often displayed; that is, an inversion of this rule which I have just shared with you. It doesn't exist everywhere, but it is far more prevalent than one might expect.

As I began my time on board my first ship as a junior officer and within my first command out of San Diego, California, I was repeatedly instructed that to advance my career, it was prudent for me to be "fascinated" by the things my bosses were merely interested in. I can tell you that only when I began to pander to the people above me did my life begin to get easier as I tried to gain my initial qualifications in the early days of my career.

The point is, that poor leadership practices and cultures exist everywhere.

The standard ought to be the very opposite. It is far more effective and rewarding for the people in charge to build trust and influence with their subordinates by becoming fascinated with what interests the people they are charged with leading, and not the other way around.


Because to qualify as a true leader, we have to be taking people on a journey toward a specific goal or outcome. If there is no journey, then there is no leadership. Any leader worth their salt will recognize that to be successful as an organization, the successes of the subordinates will culminate in the team's achievements and, by extension, the leader. It isn't about YOU; it's about how you can serve your people to help them become successful.

"The best leaders are humble enough to realize their victories depend upon their people." - John C. Maxwell

Being a leader is all about serving your subordinates and being an excellent steward to them.  


"Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men." - Albert Einstein

Being a leader means investing in relationships. When it comes to working alongside others, the heart must come before the head, regardless of the work you are involved with. As humans, we are emotional creatures, and good leaders recognize this fact.

"We must first touch people's hearts before asking for a hand." - John C. Maxwell

I have personally made the most of some of my relationships but have also burned a few bridges to the ground. Each encounter has taught me something different, but I still have much to learn on this front.

No one wants to work for someone they can't stand to be around. It makes getting work done much more painful than it needs to be, and we can't truly be fulfilled by the work we do, much less succeed in it long-term, if we don't enjoy it.

I have encountered people who think that the job and the organization's mission are all that matters. Feelings and showcasing empathy are not as important, but that isn't the way of an effective leader. A manager's mentality focuses strictly on the organization's results and nothing more. Don't get it twisted. Results and productivity are vital to leading because they are the fruits generated by the team's labors, but they aren't all that matter.

If you care only about "getting the job done" and not about the people who do the actual work, then OK; you're free to do as you please (and live with the consequences), but understand that you're strictly managing, not leading.

Leadership requires much more from each of us. We don't get to decide what kind of baggage we inherit when we must work with others, just like we don't get to choose any of the circumstances that we must sometimes face in life. Leading is about taking what you have and making it better by investing in our most precious asset, people, because, without them, there is no leadership, and there is no success.

On the Navy's ships, maintenance must be conducted on a routine basis to ensure that vital systems such as engines, generators, and other equipment function adequately to perform their operations as an instrument of national defense. Without this periodic maintenance, equipment breaks down and malfunctions, at best, and causes catastrophic casualties in which people could die at worst.  

As leaders, we must conduct the necessary maintenance on our people to function and succeed for themselves and the organization we collectively serve. People in positions of authority struggle with this because it's difficult. Still, as leaders, more is required of us to safeguard and consider our people's needs on the journies that are commensurate with our cause.

"When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion." - Dale Carnegie


"You can take my factories, burn up my buildings, but give me my people and I’ll build the business right back again." - Henry Ford

Nobody cares as much about what YOU want as they care about what THEY want. If you are trying to gain influence over others and win them to your way of thinking, you have to command respect, and never demand it.

There is a big difference between commanding respect and demanding it. On average, people will never honestly go the extra mile for those in charge unless they feel their leaders are vested in their happiness and well-being. This is the bedrock for trust, and all great leaders make a point to take an interest in their subordinates by listening to them more than they do the talking.

Your people should follow you because they want to and not because they are forced to. Learn about them and take a genuine interest in their lives. It will pay dividends in the relationship as well as for the organization and its goals.

"You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you." - Dale Carnegie


"Assumptions are the termites of relationships." - Henry Winkler

My parents taught me to be wary of making assumptions about anyone or anything. 90% of the time (perhaps even more than that), there is much more to any situation than what is initially perceived.

I have learned that good leaders are slow to anger and quick to ask questions. This tendency to be inquisitive rather than implacable indicates a leader's steadfastness. People will always look to those in charge to carefully study and consider their reactions to certain situations. When we draw assumptions rather than take a pause and ask the right questions, we often create more issues that can erode relationships and affect our cohesion as a whole.

In moments of crisis, we must stay calm, keep our heads and assume nothing because our people will look to us for guidance and counsel. How we react can mean everything in the right situations (and most certainly the wrong ones).

"Don't build roadblocks out of assumptions." - Lorii Myers


"Success is a poor teacher. We learn the most about ourselves when we fail, so don't be afraid of failing. Failing is part of the process of success. You cannot have success without failure." - Robert Kiyosaki

Failure is life's greatest teacher. Take any successful entrepreneur, businessman, military leader, or CEO, and dig deep enough into their lives; you might just be surprised what you find out about them.

Failure is inevitable, and to become great, we must resign ourselves to the reality that this is just one of many burdens of life. Of course, no one wants to experience loss, but nothing worth having in this life is easily achieved; the best things must come with hard work, perseverance, grit, and sometimes sacrifice.

Good leaders recognize the importance of failure and take measures to learn from them; so long as they keep moving forward and implement the lessons learned from their shortcomings, victories can remain in sight.

Additionally, in moments when failures occur, organizations look to their leaders for guidance and wisdom. When all eyes are on you to determine what's next, it's important to maintain composure and seek solutions for moving forward. Instances of loss are when the victories are indeed won because the moments when any team is most defeated are when a leader must shine to do their best work.  

"If you're not failing, you're probably not really moving forward." - John C. Maxwell


"I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare." - C. S. Lewis

Good leaders never measure their successes based on what they can take from their subordinates but rather seek opportunities to give and add value to their team members. Receiving and taking are two very different things; to take does not require permission of any kind, whereas to receive means that something must be freely given.

Good leaders quickly learn that they can receive in the best ways when they give to their people (not take from them). We must focus on adding value to others by finding ways to give to them; it is only then that we may achieve the lasting success that benefits all members of the organization. However, by strictly taking, leaders stand to gain something in the short term, but ultimately nothing in the long run.

It is essential to understand that giving does not always lead to receiving; after all, not everyone is so quick to reciprocate. Giving to givers will often result in receiving well in return, but by giving to takers, our efforts may be wasted. So know when to move on.

"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant." - Robert Louis Stevenson


"If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far." - Daniel Goleman

A leader's ability to empathize is a powerful tool, and it doesn't make them soft but rather insightful. Emotional intelligence is one's ability to consider the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of others. I cannot stress enough the importance of this when attempting to lead others. In today's world, I see rigid managers who care only about the results they can enjoy that they forget to take care of their most significant asset, their people.

It's challenging to consider the difficulties that others might face. We see people as workers so often that we sometimes ignore what could be transpiring in their personal lives.

Whatever you do, always remain empathetic and seek to understand the struggles your subordinates will undoubtedly face.  

"Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling." - Brené Brown


"Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel." - Eleanor Brown

Self-care isn't selfish, and more leaders ought to be prioritizing this within their daily lives. The balance of being the right amount selfish and a servant to our followers is so crucial. I have witnessed people burn themselves out and self-destruct because they neglected to take the necessary time to feed their spirits.

This means doing things that make you happy; whether it's learning a new skill, engaging with friends or a community outside of work, going for walks or spending time alone with your thoughts, etc. Leaders need to replenish their souls to return to their team refreshed and energized to complete the tasks at hand.

People don't run on batteries, after all, and finding a balance between serving ourselves and serving others is a testament to how well a leader can prioritize. It isn't easy; it's yet another reason why the burden of leading is so difficult, but the simple fact remains that you can not lead others until you first learn to lead yourself.

"First be a leader of yourself. Only then can you grow to lead others." - David Taylor-Klaus


"Make the most of yourself....for that is all there is of you." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aside from self-care, perhaps the most important thing a leader can do for themselves is examine how they deal with others. Having tact means exhibiting sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult circumstances. Leaders cannot have discretion unless they take frequent looks in the mirror and silently question their actions.

It's easy to believe that what I'm describing is a promotion of self-doubt; after all, one of the worst afflictions that people in positions of authority face is being unsure of themselves, often leading to indecisiveness. Instead, I'm describing a leader's ability to focus on continual self-improvement, and this cannot happen unless a leader is willing to be honest with themselves.

After all, no one who has worked hard to be in a position of influence wants to think of themselves as being unworthy or unfit to lead. Still, it happens, and ironically, it is often due to the pride which they continuously feed without properly balancing it with appropriate self-examination.  

"Change is inevitable. Growth is optional." - John C. Maxwell


"With great power comes greater responsibility." Let's all use our leadership powers for good by adding value to others. Our ability to influence people in a positive way is a gift; and to who much is given, much is required.  


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