Background info: I played a lot of sports as a youngster, but I was never a cheerleader.
One of the crazy things you have to learn to do when you start up a lab is figure out how to keep people motivated and productive. I am certainly not an expert in this area, and I'm sure that I have made some real mistakes. But, the general approach I have been using is to try to emulate some of the great mentors that I have had. Many of these were not ever my actual lab PI, but they are folks that I have talked to about mentoring and lab management or witnessed vicariously through friends that were in their lab.
So, what did I learn that I am trying to use in my own lab? Well, (obv) everyone is different, so you can't have the same mentoring relationship with all the peeps. But in general, I try to be a cheerleader. This was explicit advice from one of my most-trusted mentoring mentors. I give advice, and try to nudge folks to do what I want. But often I just try to encourage the peeps if they are having difficulty nailing down an experimental result, finishing a fellowship application, or whatever. Because sometimes doing science is hard. It can be discouraging, particularly as a new student. I have good students in my lab. They are smart and work hard. Most of the time I just have to cheer and stay out of the way. This does NOT mean that I am not critical with the folks in my lab. If you fuck up, you'll know. We have discussions on areas in which they need more work. But this is all in the realm of constructive criticism.
I was thinking about this recently because of an interesting interaction I had when I was talking to another Asst. Prof I had called to get a reference for someone that had applied to be a postdoc in my lab. This was the second person I had talked to on the phone about Dr. PD App, and everyone was very enthusiastic. But I was asking open-ended questions and trying to see if there were any red flags (or strengths/weaknesses that I should know about if s/he was in my lab). In the course of this discussion, Asst. Prof mentioned was talking about how independent Dr. PD App was and how s/he had never needed a lot of "cheerleading". This was meant as a compliment to indicate that they were very self-motivated and persistent even when shit didn't go their way. Fair enough-score 1 for Dr. PD App! What was surprising is that Asst. Prof went on to lament about how many of his students did need cheerleading and how this was one of the most exhausting and irritating parts of his new job as the head of a lab.
I totally agree that learning to manage people in the lab can be overwhelming. But..."irritating"? Not so much. I rely on the folks in my lab to be productive so that I can write papers and grants and get tenure. In return, they get an education and a chance to develop as a young scientist. Sure, I didn't have any formal management training before I moved from the bench into the office. It is a lot of work (and pressure), but it is also rewarding. I guess I didn't really mind taking on the role as lab cheerleader.
What do you think - is cheerleading is part of being a good mentor?