‘Rules Don’t Apply to Me’

By | February 13, 2020

[February 13, 2020]  The roof was cratered by a JDAM 500-pound bomb1 and it had crushed the support columns of a three-story Iraqi ministry building.  Back in early 2004, my Army Engineers were studying the building as a possible site for an Infantry Brigade Headquarters.  Sitting inside at the time was a young sergeant from the 1st Armored Division who had refused to leave when told to do so.  He said (and I found it surprising at the time) that the ‘rules don’t apply to me.’

As time went by during my first Iraq War deployment, I found this attitude increasingly common among soldiers.  It was as if the war had allowed rules to be disregarded at a whim and permitted a host of potentially deadly behaviors.  Occupying a structurally unsound building is dangerous and stupid.  If the structure collapsed, as it surely would at some point, his body might never be found.

Military leaders are busy people.  During wartime, they don’t have the same level of daily hands-on effort due to the complexity and confusion of the battlefield.  Undesirable behaviors can manifest themselves in such an environment.  That is why officers are taught the dangers of such situations and how they can prevent or overcome them when encountered.

Soldiers are an innovative lot and are quick to take advantage of any given situation.  That is one of the desirable features of the modern U.S. Infantryman in combat.  Every time I seemed to have predicted who or what would use the facilities our Engineers built or repaired, I would be surprised at their inventive use.  This attitude is why we got input first before doing any work on the ground.  We made it central to the planning process.

Two years later, on my second combat deployment to Iraq, we ran into another similar problem.  U.S. President Bush had agreed upon a new plan, a “surge” of troops to stem the tide of irregular warfare that had put us on the defensive.  I was given a simple problem, but like so many, it had its surprises.  Four Iraqi terrorists had escaped one of our internment camps.  My job was to make sure that never happened again; an order directly from President Obama.

Before my HUMMV engine cooled off, I was on my way to the camp to develop a tentative plan of action.  I meet with the U.S. Military Police battalion commander on the problem.  His first words to me were, ‘Rules don’t apply to me.’  I had to blink before I responded and told him that my mission was to fix his camp to ensure no more escapes, and there would be no excuses.  If that meant hogtying him, then so be it.

Over my career, I’ve heard this spoken many times.  Others act as if the rules don’t apply to them.  I could list many current politicians who fall into this category but the list would be redundant.  Leaders learn quickly how to overcome this attitude (or maybe it’s a philosophy) and never take it as a final answer.


  1. I learned how to identify bombing effectiveness through experience in Iraq and discovered that this building had been hit with a guided air-to-surface 500-pound BLU-111/MK 82. https://www.military.com/equipment/joint-direct-attack-munition-jdam
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

18 thoughts on “‘Rules Don’t Apply to Me’

  1. Dale Paul Fox

    Good article on an overlooked subject, Gen. Satterfield, so thanks. I would like to add that this is a much too common phenomenon in our social world also. It’s not that we just want to disobey the rules of the highway or in our workplace but also in our social day-to-day relationships. We cheat on our wives, dismiss our family’s concerns, and allow ourselves to be lazy, fat, and stupid. What to do about it? The first step is to recognize it and them start with tiny steps to adopt the mindset of telling the truth.

    1. Len Jakosky

      Great comment, Dale. I agree that we must take responsibility, tell the truth, and take the first step into the light. Avoid misusing rules and dismissing them as unrealistic and recognize them for what they are for.

  2. Harry Donner

    “Rules, rules, rules, there are too many rules.” This is another refrain that I hear often, too often. I work in a large warehouse where we process materials destined for autobody shops. It is not big on intelligence to do well but you do have to work hard and obey the safety rules (or you might get hurt). We’ll I’ve seen many fired because they simply beleive that rules are for the other guy.

    1. Deplorable John

      I see it too wherever I go in the business world or just when folks sit down to play a game of cards. Cheating is not just done, it is expected. Ever go to a casino? There are cameras there to catch you cheating. Maybe that is just a human thing.

      1. Kenny Foster

        John, I’m not so sure I would be so pessimistic about human nature. However, you are right about the casinos.

      2. Gil Johnson

        The rules are there to make it “easier” for us and safer, they are not there to makes us feel trapped. If you feel that way, then either get out or help make changes from within. Whining about the problem of rules is not a good strategy.

    2. Dennis Mathes

      Yes, Harry we’ve all heard this and maybe we’ve also been the one saying it. Thanks for your comment and it is spot on.

  3. Valkerie

    General Satterfield, another great article. Keep ’em coming this way.

  4. Willie Shrumburger

    There’s a rebel in all of us. We like to be the one who is the come-back kid, the underdog who wins, and the one who discovers evil deep in the world to expose and destroy it. But, alas, that is not the real world.

  5. Dr. William Blake, Sr.

    Good article, Gen. Satterfield. I laughed to myself when I first read today’s article. I’ve seen this issue too many times to count and have struggled personally against the problems that stem from folks who don’t think rules of any kind apply to them.

    1. Nancy B

      My sister thought this growing up in Miami Florida. We have a great childhood but she kept getting into trouble with mom and dad. Eventually she left for college, failed out, got a job as a waitress (got fired), and married a loser. When you believe the world’s rules don’t apply, you are in for a tough road.

  6. Albert Ayer

    He He He… nicely written. Narcissists are part of the problem because they believe the rules too don’t apply to them. It’s a very immature perspective.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      Boy, have we all seen this before. Usually you find it in young leaders and not senior ones because the latter have survived the winnowing of the field. Immature leaders who believe the rules don’t apply get knocked out early in the leadership challenge.

      1. KenFBrown

        You’re right Eva. Over time, there is this process in any meta bureaucratic structure that narrows the field of those who are ascending to the top. It is a measure of effectiveness and powerfulness. The higher up, the better you’ve got to be.

      2. Dead Pool Guy

        Good point, Eva. Thanks for jumping on this quickly. Along with Albert who points out that narcissists AND narcissist tendencies (which we all have) is a big part of the picture.

    1. JT Patterson

      So too has just about everyone. What to do about it is the real question.


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