Leaders, Do You Have Your People’s Backs?

https://triplecrownleadership.com/have-peoples-backs/Leaders, Do You Have Your People’s Backs?

Article Summary:

Good leaders tell their people, “I’ve got your back”—and mean it. They make good on that promise. They protect their team, in the process building loyalty and trust. Do you have your people’s backs?


In the film “A Few Good Men,” Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, defends two dedicated young U.S. Marines charged with the alleged killing of a fellow Marine. At issue was a “code red” (a disciplinary action brought against a Marine who’s fallen out of line) that went horribly awry. During the court-martial proceedings, Lt. Kaffee questions Base Commander Colonel Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson. Here’s the dramatic exchange:

Lt. Kaffee: Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?
Judge Randolph: You don’t have to answer that question.
Col Jessup: I’ll answer the question. You want answers?
Lt. Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.
Col. Jessep: You want answers?
Lt. Kaffee: I want the truth!
Col. Jessup: You can’t handle the truth! …(extended monologue)…
Lt. Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?
Col Jessup: I did the job…
Lt. Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?
Col Jessup: You’re goddamn right I did!

In the face of this tragic accident, Colonel Jessep not only lied about what happened and tried to cover it up, he also threw two of the Marines in his command under the bus. A terrible failure of leadership.


Three Powerful Phrases

In a prior article, we noted the three most important things leaders can say to their teams:

I believe in you.
I trust you.
I’ve got your back.

In our experience, it’s remarkable the impact these words can have when they’re followed by corresponding action. When leaders tell their people, “I’ve got your back,” they’re promising to protect and defend them. They must make good on that promise. (1)

In having their team’s back, leaders show they care about their people. They’re loyal to them and committed to shielding them from attacks by peers or even higher authorities. Leaders who do it consistently generate tremendous loyalty and build trust. (2)

There is a great deal of talk about loyalty from the bottom to the top.
Loyalty from the top down is even more necessary and much less prevalent

-General George S. Patton, War as I Knew It

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Throwing People Under the Bus

Too often, leaders not only fail to have their people’s backs, but they actually throw them under the bus: leaders find someone to blame so they can avoid their own accountability for a problem.

For example, when a data breach at a key vendor compromises some customer data, does the leader blame one person even though the causes are multifaceted? In a crisis, when there’s blood in the water and the sharks are circling because the press is bad and the stock is down—and board members are shouting that “heads must roll”—does the CEO choose a scapegoat to be the recipient of all that angst and blame?

The stakes are high. Throwing someone under the bus is an act of disloyalty, betrayal, dishonor, and cowardice. It undermines trust and belief, and it shows that leaders care more about themselves than their team. Throwing someone under the bus shows that leaders are more concerned about avoiding trouble themselves and that they’re willing to abandon their people. It shows that they want the credit and the glory but they’re not willing to put themselves on the line for it.

It’s a common phenomenon among “pseudo-transformational leaders.” According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, such leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values. It’s one example of what Dawn Eubanks and other leadership scholars call the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking advantage of people).


The Implications of Having People’s Backs

What’s at stake with the question of whether leaders have their people’s backs or not—and whether they throw people under the bus? Almost everything. It affects team loyalty, trust, and motivation, as well as perceptions of fairness, justice, integrity, credibility, and reliability.

There’s an element of reciprocity at work here: workers wonder why they should give so much to managers and organizations only to be fed to the wolves at the first sign of trouble. Leaders who don’t get this right will destroy the sense that they’re all in this together—and invite muttering and cynicism to their team. It will affect whether people feel free to innovate and take risks. When leaders botch this, people will be afraid to fail, and they’re likely to start looking for work elsewhere.

In their classic leadership text, The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner note the things people most look for and admire in leaders. “Honest” is consistently the top characteristic, and “dependable,” “supportive,” “caring,” and “loyal” are also among the top responses—clear evidence that people want their leaders to have their backs.

Leaders earn respect when they have their people’s backs. Workers want to make them proud. It’s a powerful motivator.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Good Leaders Take Responsibility

A key factor in this equation is responsibility. Good leaders take responsibility not only for their own actions and results but also those of their team. U.S. President Harry S. Trauma felt so strongly about it that he kept a sign on his desk at the Oval Office that read, “The buck stops here.” Clearly, passing the back (avoiding responsibility) is the opposite of good leadership.

the buck stops here

How does this work in practice? When something goes wrong in an organization, a good leader doesn’t blame someone, even if that person clearly made a mistake. A good leader takes responsibility for it.

That doesn’t mean leaders don’t deal with the issue at hand. (3) In most cases, they take action privately to protect the people involved from further blowback in the organization and to avoid that person experiencing public embarrassment. (For many workers, the pain of the mistake or failure is bad enough on its own without that extra bit of social shaming.) Leaders show the higher authorities that they’re dealing with it or have it under control—and that they take full responsibility for what happens on their team and on their watch.

What does it look like to have someone’s back?


14 Examples of Having Someone’s Back

Sometimes, it’s not clear what this means. So, here are 14 examples of leaders having the backs of their people (as you read through it, think about whether you’ve done or seen any of these):

  1. A manager stands up for a customer service representative who gets unreasonable customer complaints or rude or abusive customer comments—instead of blindly following the mantra that “the customer’s always right” no matter what.
  2. A senior executive stands up for a manager who got on the bad side of a vindictive executive in another department.
  3. After the failure of a risky product launch, a manager encourages the engineer to keep working and offers to help.
  4. A CEO steps up and helps a worker going through a family or health crisis.
  5. A manager stands up for a worker who inadvertently got in the middle of a turf war between divisions.
  6. A CEO doggedly commits to keeping all workers during an economic downturn even while rival companies are doing mass layoffs.
  7. A manager goes to bat for a worker facing a stingy maternity leave policy after a difficult birth and recovery. And fights for a better policy.
  8. A manager stands up for a worker who’s being treated with disrespect or prejudice for being different—and lays down the law about how people on the team must treat each other, including the consequences of disobeying.
  9. A senior manager insists on giving a worker a second chance after a failed campaign.
  10. A manager takes extra time to prepare a direct report for a big meeting coming up to make sure the person crushes it.
  11. A senior executive doesn’t question the decisions of her managers in front of their teams to avoid undermining their authority.
  12. Senior executives reduce their compensation even more than front-line workers during a crisis so they can all make it through the crisis together.
  13. A company keeps fighting for the safety and rights of a worker subject to injury or detention while on foreign assignment.
  14. We even saw a powerful example in the wildly popular and beloved “Ted Lasso” Netflix series, when Lasso refused to throw Nate under the bus after his brutal betrayal. Lasso also defended Nate when others refused to consider taking him back on the coaching staff.

Alignment Scorecard

When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.


Levels of Commitment

According to The Yes Works, a communication and collaboration training company, people may disagree about appropriate levels of support to provide or expect, in part due to lack of clarity about what it means. With that in mind, they identified eight levels of commitment, with each one reflecting a higher degree of productivity and satisfaction on the team:

  1. I won’t throw you under the bus. I’ve got your back.
  2. If you’re in distress and you ask me for help, I’ll agree to help. I’ve got your back.
  3. If I see that you’re in distress, I’ll stop and volunteer my help. I’ve got your back.
  4. I know where you’re likely to need help, and I’ll ask if you’re struggling and need my help. I’ve got your back.
  5. I know your strengths and weaknesses. My help will come in such a way and at such a time that your weakness will never show. The help is there before you know you need it. I’ve got your back.
  6. I know our strengths and weaknesses as a team. I develop my skills and those of my team and find resources to eradicate those weaknesses and contribute to seamless team production. I’ve got your back.
  7. No matter what’s going on with me, I’m going to bring my A game. You can depend on me to bring my best, even when I’m tired or overwhelmed or scared. I’ve got your back.
  8. No matter what’s going on with me, I’m dedicated to your success. I will do what I can to bring out your best. I’ve got your back.

(Source: The Yes Works.)

Note that the highest levels involve not just having someone’s back but also developing a whole culture of people having each other’s backs. (4)



As noted above, there are many powerful benefits that come from having people’s backs, from increased trust, loyalty, motivation, and retention to greater willingness to innovate and take risks. With the psychological safety and team unity that flow from this powerful practice, leaders are wise to step up and get this right—consistently.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not just a leadership practice. It’s a practice that’s advisable for all workers—and all people, as it relates to their friends and family. The world is a much better place when we have each other’s backs.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you waiting to scold people for their mistakes, or are you looking for opportunities to defend them?
  2. Have you ever thrown someone under the bus?
  3. If so, how can you make amends?
  4. Are you ready to tell your colleagues that you’ve got their backs—and make good on that promise?


Tools for You

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Related Articles


Postscript: Quotations on Leaders Having People’s Backs

  • “You were there for us when we needed you, and we will be there for you.” -Jonathan Tisch, former CEO Loews Hotels
  • “It’s nice to come to the park every day knowing that’s your leader and he has your back.” -Mike Napoli, professional baseball player, on his manager, Terry Francona
  • “If by my life or death I can protect you, I will.” -Aragorn to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “We are not put on earth for ourselves but are placed here for each other. If you are there always for others, then in time of need, someone will be there for you.” -Jeff Warner, author and chef
  • “If you don’t look out for others, who will look out for you?” -Whoopi Goldberg, actor
  • “Trust is the central issue in human relationships. Without trust, you can’t lead…. Studies demonstrate that trust strongly predicts personal, team, and organizational performance.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

(1) In the U.S. military, the related phrase is “I’ve got your six.” That phrase originated with World War I fighter pilots referring to a plane’s rear as the six o’clock position. Enemy pilots would try to get behind their plane’s tail to shoot them down, but pilots trusted their wingmen to protect their “six.”

(2) In the leadership literature, having people’s backs is implicit in several theories (e.g., the individualized consideration leaders show to followers in transformational leadership theory, how leaders put followers first and help them grow and succeed in servant leadership, and the ethical and stewardship components of triple crown leadership).

(3) For example, they may ask the person responsible what they learned from the mistake—and what they’ll do about it. They may require extra training or coaching. They may demote or penalize the person, or even terminate them if the mistake was egregious—and especially if it was a repeat offense.

(4) Leadership author and drama researcher Cy Wakeman recommends that leaders add a single question to their toolkit: Whenever things go wrong, or a deadline is missed, or a worker complains about a peer, etc., the leader should ask: What did I do to help?

Triple Crown Leadership Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get our monthly inspirations (new articles, announcements, opportunities, resources, and more). Welcome!


Gregg Vanourek and Bob Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors (and son and father). They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

https://triplecrownleadership.com/have-peoples-backs/Leaders, Do You Have Your People’s Backs?

Leave a Comment