Lifeline or lacklustre – What does it take to be a leader ?

Mark Cutting Analysis, Leadership, Management, Mentoring, Staff, Strategy 2 Comments

What exactly is involved in being a leader ? What qualities do you need to possess in order to provide mentoring and make the whole experience a valid one for the recipient ? This is an interesting debate and often the fuel for intense discussion around how this exercise should be conducted, and what is often (unfortunately) the real world case. The following article is the inevitable follow on from one I previously wrote.

Mentoring isn’t just about training or keeping someone on the straight and narrow in terms of their career choice – it’s about patience and competence. Mentoring essentially is guidance – coupled with training, counseling, and a positive attitude, it can be a very powerful tool in any leader’s collection. However, much of the approach offered to this topic is often handled badly. A classic example is hiring for a position where the requirements or expectations haven’t been understood or even set. In most cases, you hire additional staff because you are buckling under increasing workload with unforgiving deadlines and realise that additional manpower is now essential in order to remain afloat. You are so busy, that you fail to provide the necessary guidance and dedicated time to your new employee, then complain that they are not up to your expected standard, or perform poorly in their new position. Who is at fault here ?

In most cases, this shortfall in expectation is actually down to you as the leader.

Step back and take a top down view at the daily routine. Your new member of staff clearly needs some help and assistance in settling into their new role, and the old adage / cliché of “hit the ground running” (I really can’t express just how much I dislike this quote) doesn’t cut it in today’s workplace environment. I agree, you hire for competency, attitude and aptitude, but unless you are willing to allow that new hire the grace of a transitional period, then this entire exercise is doomed to fail. Your new hire will inevitably have questions around processes, procedures, work protocol, and other related queries that you as the leader should be answering. Hiring for a position isn’t fire and forget. It’s a continuous development and mentoring cycle. If you decide not to invest in your staff, how can you realistically expect them to invest in you, or buy into your ideology ?

Hitting the logical brick wall

Not devoting enough time to a new hire in terms of mentoring is very damaging for a leader, and casts a negative impression to others. It’s equally damaging for existing staff who look to you for both inspiration and guidance in testing times, yet face a logical brick wall when they seek assistance. For existing employees, this causes a level of discontent and resentment – both of which can easily infect your new hire and influence them early on that their recent career move was in fact a huge mistake. Any HR professional will tell you that it is your responsibility as a leader to nurture your team (which also extends to your new hire) and have them feel that they can approach you without causing offence – or doing so with an unnecessary feeling of trepidation. I’ve seen various situations over my career in fact where a particular individual wouldn’t ask for help if they thought someone looked busy. Most people are actually busy all the time, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be interrupted if they are at their desks. Admittedly, continuously interrupting meetings doesn’t quite work as well, and the approach requires common sense from the requestor, and diligence from the leader. Even if the mentor is busy and needs to focus their attention to matters immediately at hand, this should be communicated to the requestor and not simply left in a state of “no man’s land” – then forgotten. Of the worst offenders, the “I’m too busy at the moment” is probably up there in the top three – agree a time when you will stop what you are doing and actually listen to what your staff member has to say.

I personally prefer the approach of setting calendar times to discuss progress or issues with staff, and be available for them when they request assistance. This promotes a sense of ownership on the part of the leader, and will be seen as dedication to your staff. If your new hire doesn’t feel that they can approach you, then gets the butt end of the gun for making a mistake, who is at fault ? On the one hand, your employee took the initiative and made a judgement call based on their understanding of the issue and their experience level. On the other hand, such ”gut feelings” aren’t always accurate – on the flip side, this response could cause more problems than it originally set out to resolve.

If you didn’t make yourself or an appropriate representative available to that employee to help them understand the issue and decide on the best course of action, how can you realistically blame them for making the wrong choice ? This case scenario isn’t limited to new hires either – it should encompass all of your staff. Admittedly, you could take the approach of claiming to not have been informed about the issue, but then what image does this portray ? Did nobody bother to tell you because they think you are unapproachable, or simply do not care ? You may come across as dismissive without realising it, so it’s always a good idea to encourage your staff to feel that they can speak freely without being judged, or worse, become the focus of ridicule or condemnation.

As a leader, not all feedback you receive will be positive – but it is mostly for your own benefit. You may not agree with the comments made, but should be prepared to listen to the argument before jumping in head first in terms of the response. Based on this, it’s relatively easy to see how any so called mentor turns out to be nothing short of a monster when let off their leash.

Consider this paradigm. David is the department head, and starts to complain about Josh to his colleagues. Not only is this highly inappropriate, but it immediately gives other staff members the impression that this could also be happening to them when their back is turned – even if this were not the case, it is a natural reaction from the participant that this behaviour could make them feel uncomfortable. What started out as potentially “innocent venting” ends up as resentment – particularly if one who overhears the discussion is a good friend of Josh. No prizes for guessing what will inevitably happen next.

Positive v negative leadership

In order for you to succeed as a leader, you need to be fully aware and focused at all times in terms of what is going on around you. I’ve seen many so called “leaders” who couldn’t actually guide you out of a brown paper bag, and some that have a natural ability to excel in this field.

Below are two common scenarios around good and bad leadership I’ve created based on my experiences over the course of my career. See if you can spot the hidden keywords.

Scenario 1 – the positive

  • Lead from the back and let your staff spread their wings. Allow them to grow and encourage development – even if this does mean that one day they may decide to flee the nest
  • Evolve with your staff, and move with the times. Too many “leaders” remain stale when it comes to adopting change – some may also resist change
  • Address issues as they arise. Don’t allow problems to fester to the point of reaching volatility
  • Diligence should be part of your approach to issues. Treat ideas and opinions from staff with the respect they deserve. There’s no such thing as a stupid question.
  • Engagement is key. If you don’t make the effort to involve staff in discussions and decision making, you should not expect them to buy into your ideology. Their input could change the course of your decision for the better
  • Reward staff with respect. Common courtesy costs nothing but unfortunately seems lost in today’s business environment. Staff should know when they’ve excelled their goals – not all humans are motivated by financial gain alone
  • Stoicism is an important skill when it comes to conflict. Don’t get emotional or angry. Remain calm and address potentially uncomfortable situations with a clear goal towards resolution
  • Host regular group and one-to-one meetings with staff, and instead of force feeding, encourage them to step forward and express their views. Some great ideas are often created in this way – some of which may be superior to yours
  • Involve team members in decision making and projects. Peer review or group discussion is a powerful exercise that allows you to leverage the experience of staff and extend the scope of a particular issue. It also shows respect for others if you are willing to listen and incorporate their input
  • Provide guidance and consultancy for staff to use at any point. You are a leader for a reason and should be a fountain of knowledge for your team to tap into.

Scenario 2 – the negative

  • Always unavailable when needed for advice or decision making, yet the first to complain when something goes wrong or when a key deliverable has not been met.
  • Seldomly shows interest or empathy to staff related personal problems that may affect that individual’s performance
  • Separates themselves from the front line by sitting in an office with the door permanently closed
  • Has the tendency not to listen and comes across as dismissive. A true case of “my way or the highway”
  • Oblivious to friction, infighting, and negative energy within their own team
  • Leaves promptly despite the team having to work late to resolve issues and meet deadlines
  • Excels at self preservation, and a Jedi master of throwing staff under the bus.

Those of an analytical nature (and fans of sarcasm) will have already spotted the inevitable patterns here and have probably witnessed these traits first hand themselves at some point in their career. The 7 traits from scenario 2 not only sum up that individual perfectly, but also places them in the one category that several negative “leaders” find themselves in through their own bad decisions and resultant actions. It’s also one of those words that everyone understands  (regardless of language) – although immediately obvious to those on the outside, not so to the indivdual it’s attributed to.


So here it is. My take around a simplistic guide on how to be an effective, successful, and respected leader. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s one that most people can relate to. If you are a leader, compare these two scenarios to your own work ethic and answer honestly.

Which one best describes you ? I hope most of the points aren’t from scenario 2 !

About the Author
Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting

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Mark Cutting is the founder of and He is a network, security and infrastructure expert with more than 27 years service in the Information Technology sector. Mark has a significant eye for detail, coupled with an extensive skill set. Having worked in numerous industries including trading, finance, hedge funds, marketing, manufacturing and distribution, he has been exposed to a wide variety of environments and technologies alike.

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Tanya A. Sanders
Tanya A. Sanders

I’ve just realised that “Scenario 2” spells A S S H O L E – very clever !! 🙂