To answer your original questions:
1. do i allow these guys to sleep in, and make a judgement call. or do i set in stone 4:00am is the starting time every day.?
I personally would sleep better if I knew the guy was out there when he was supposed to be.
2. lunch breaks- set in stone time (unless they get approval) or do I allow them flexibility?
Flexibility but you need some sort of structure and documentation have a crew leader call the supervisor when they are going on and off break so that way its clear.
3. over all - do i allow crew leaders to make choices like this, or do i write a strict handbook that more or less spells out day for day on what will happen?
Handbook doesnt seem like a bad idea just to set a general structure and something to fall back on but I wouldnt go enforcing it to a T every day.
My opinion here is this: I get the impression that your company is to the size where you're no longer in the field working with the employees. I am still small enough that I'm still out there working with the guys. My view is I want the employees to feel like they are working WITH me and not FOR me. I try to be as reasonable as possible with them, I don't make them do anything that I wouldnt. I wont stand there leaning on a shovel and say "dig this hole, move the 100lb root ball...." no I dig the hole myself and am right there with them wrestling the 100lb root ball into place. I think that goes a LONG way towards the employees respecting you. I always buy the guys lunch at least 1 day a week sometimes 2 if its a tough week, if they want to take a break, thats fine go take a few minutes because odds are I'm going to want to sit down for a few minutes at some point too. We have a great morale and camaraderie on our jobsites and yet I feel that we are very productive. Like I said, my biggest thing is I want to make the guys feel like we are all working together and not have that boss-worker relationship. Again, the way I run things works out very well for me I have some great employees who I trust driving my trucks, running my equipment, and even talking to customers. I think the whole dont make them do something you wouldnt do thing goes a long way. and when they see you doing it, they respect you a lot more because they see that you're not afraid to get in there and do it for yourself. I don't ever want to be the business owner that drives around in a brand new luxury truck all day and stops at the various job sites to point fingers. I will hire someone to run the office at that point. I want to be out there in the field with the guys every day. Again, its all about building that trust. I know, because I have been in the field working with the guys for so long that I can send them to do a job, whether it be mowing a lawn or a landscape maintenance (I tend to usually be there for the more involved construction jobs) and they are comfortable because they know the way they are doing it is the way I want it done because thats how WE did it together, and I know they know what they are doing because WE did it together before and I showed them the way I want things done. Makes me feel better about it and not have to worry about things as much. Obviously I can't be with both of my crews at the same time, but I divide my time between them to spend time with and work with both of them.
Just my .02 cents haha