17 Apr 2019 19:58 IST

Waiters, whiners, weasels and winners

Winners always find the way; others complain or try to escape

As we join the workplace, we will need to quickly decide what kind of leader and team member we are going to be. We could be waiters or whiners, weasels or winners. The same categories play out at work and in life. We will need to reflect whether we are prepared to put in the discipline, display the passion and cultivate the attitude that will make us winners.


Not the liveried kind. These are people who are always waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, they are waiting for somebody else to take action. If they are dealing with a problem, they often hope that things will get better on their own — they never do. The problems usually end up getting bigger. Jet Airways is perhaps a good example. Their debacle may have been averted if they had taken action. There were several indicators pointing to trouble, they either chose to do nothing or hoped things would get better on their own. If ‘waiters’ have to tap an opportunity, they are either tentative or waiting for the stars to line up. Often ‘waiters’ spend endless time debating the problem, admiring the problem instead of taking decisive action.

Sony, perhaps, waited too long on their eBook reader. They were, in fact, the first to market, but Amazon came in fast, and with a huge collection, and swamped them with the Kindle.

In meetings with young employees, when either a problem or opportunity is thrown out to the group, it is painful to watch many just waiting for someone else to jump in. It is a joy when someone straightaway puts up their hand and volunteers to own the problem or opportunity. These are the folk who mark themselves out — they will always have such little competition.


These are people who are always complaining. They are always looking for someone or something to blame. Whiners have trouble taking ownership. When Reliance Jio launched services in India with never-before pricing and never-before offers, its competitors cried foul. They kept blaming what they perceived as the special circumstances of Jio’s entry and the different rules that seemed to apply to them. While there could have been elements of truth in their complaints — to keep whining about it is poor form for a leader. Leaders look at the reality of a situation and understand that they have to accept the changed scenario. They then shift focus to what they can control — their marketing, their innovation, their service. By whining they get distracted, focusing on the ‘uncontrollables’.

We could also pick up this habit if we’re not careful. Do we tend to blame the faculty when we score poorly in a subject today? It’s highly likely we will tend to blame a teammate or the boss or the client or the weather when a project is delayed tomorrow. For managers, this type of employee falls in the high-maintenance bucket. After a while, they will either avoid giving assignments to them or, if the problem persists, they will offload them.

Leaders strongly believe in the phrase “no excuses”. Bosses value the team members who use that phrase. When something goes wrong, most efficient managers will find a way to rectify the problem and harvest learnings; what they don’t want to have to deal with is a whiner.


These are people who are always afraid. Like the Gauls in Asterix, they are afraid that the sky is going to fall on their heads. It is disappointing when you see young employees who try to wangle the convenient assignment, who grab opportunities for needless time-offs, who prefer the easier clients. They are sometimes afraid of the extra work, sometimes afraid of failure. While this is a natural human tendency and the first instinct for most of us, the leader is the one who conquers this instinct and consciously chooses to not fear. Grab was the smaller version in the Singapore cab-aggregator market, with Uber, the bigger player, with the deeper pockets threatening to wipe them out. But Grab’s fearless attitude and willingness to scrap it out, eventually led to its emerging as the dominant player and Uber now, almost, completely merging with it.

Think about which US stock has outperformed many top-of-the-mind darlings over several decades. It wasn’t IBM or Merck — it was Southwest Airlines. An industry that had every reason to be afraid — there was 9/11; there were rising aviation fuel prices and yet while their competitors were weasels as troubles hit, Southwest came through unafraid, stronger and proud of their special brand of service.


These are people who are willing to seize the day. They are valued by their bosses, their teams and their organisations like gold dust. Whether they fail or succeed at specific assignments or tasks, this attitude distinguishes them.

I remember a time when my team and I were on the verge of losing a coveted deal against a tough competitor. In spite of all the advantages we had demonstrated to the prospective client, the deal seemed to be slipping away on price and the team was demoralised and discouraged. I remember the closing quote I used in the email I sent the team — “In a dogfight, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”. The team came back strongly, overcoming the temptation to be waiters or whiners or weasels. We eventually won the deal. I was proud of them. That’s what distinguishes winners most — the attitude of stepping forward, the habit of standing up to be counted, the willingness to face fears and transcend them.

As we step into the work world, we need to keep these four Ws in mind and test whether every day we can avoid being the first three and embrace the qualities and attitudes that place us firmly as part of the fourth.