On our own turf we had our gangers to protect us but, in hostile territory we could still call in gangers guarding nearby territories to rush in to help us out. Other than that, they act fairly autonomously. All we had to worry about was giving the order to attack. In an early mission we had to take over the areas around a particularly well defended piece of the hood. Once we had enough gangers, we sent the orders and they all rushed in and assassinated the sections boss. But even with backup, it's pretty tough to run a gang without having to bust a few caps yourself.
The game gives a lot of freedom to develop a unique character with traits, skills, and attack styles that you pick out. Traits are character specific passive abilities that points are spent on as your territory increases. Each trait is associated with zero to three skills and attack styles, which work together like the forks and knives of the combat system.
After learning a trait with an attack style or skill attached to it, you can pay a trainer to teach you the new ability - if you control a territory that has a trainer in it. One of the first skills we learned with the melee character, Angel, was her knockdown ability. But rather than simply hitting the knockdown button every ten seconds, skills are used in conjunction with special attack styles that modify how they work.