The Anti-Mentor: How a bad boss influences our leadership style

Having a bad boss shapes our leadership style more than we realize – for better and for worse.

Who’s the worst boss you ever had? Your answer to this question matters. It influences your leadership style in more ways than you think.

For myself, I can answer that question, “Who’s the worst boss you ever had?” almost immediately.

He’s someone I’d worked for coming out of college, after I’d started my first company. You’ve likely met a variant of him before: One of those leaders who looks you steadily in the eye, and with complete conviction and charisma, articulates a beautiful vision of the future the two of you could create together.

Back then, I nodded my head, convinced.

He then turned around… and he didn’t follow through on what he’d promised. He played favorites. His mood temperamental, at best. Ask a question, make a suggestion, offer a new idea – and he appeared irritated that you dared to speak up.

He wasn’t a bad person (he was a lovely person, in fact.) But having him as a boss showed me exactly the kind of boss I didn’t want to become. I took his template of leadership and whittled my own – a relief carving in opposition to his.

This worst boss of mine is what some would call an “anti-mentor.” Far from the person who you aspire to be like, they are who you avoid emulating, at all costs.

To this day, my “anti-mentor” influences my actions as a leader. For instance, I go to great lengths to be immaculate with my word. I’ve witnessed firsthand how destructive it is to say one thing and do another, as a leader. I strive to be unabashedly fair and consistent, because I’ve noticed how much instability and low motivation an unpredictable leader injects in a team. And, to this day, I’m highly conscious of creating an environment that encourages people to share divergent opinions. I’d seen what happens when the leader expects honest feedback to come to him – he never hears it.

When I reflect on my own leadership style, I realize that the bad bosses I’ve had influenced me more than any good boss I’ve had. Seeing what you don’t want to be like is more powerful than what you do want to be. The push is greater than the pull.

Psychologist Frank Oser calls this “negative morality” – learning from mistakes is markedly more powerful than learning from successes. However, you don’t necessarily need to experience the mistakes yourself to feel its impact. In the book The Moral Advantage, William Damon explains how the people he interviewed often cited the “anti-mentor” for shaping their values more than any other positive example or role model.

In this sense, an “anti-mentor” is a gift. My experience with my worst boss was a clarifying force. It helped me understand what I valued as a leader and as a person. Resistance shapes you. When know what you’re against, you more firmly know what you’re for.

At the same time, “anti-mentors” have unintended, adverse consequences when you model your leadership style in reaction to them. You can easily – and unknowingly – overcompensate. For example, my worst boss was never sensitive about extenuating life situations of his employees. If someone’s kid was sick, if something tough was going on in life, it was, “Well, that’s too bad. Can you get this done ASAP?” As a result, with my own team, I’m exceptionally generous about the time someone can take off. Sure, that’s good in the right doses… But I think in the past, I’ve been too liberal with it. There are people I’ve worked with who’ve taken advantage of my overly generous tendencies, and left our team worse off.

Most commonly, I talk to many leaders who have a problem being too nice because of their “anti-mentor.” Their former boss was as asshole and they are scarred by that experience. But inadvertently, now as a leader themselves, they lean the other way too far. They can’t bring up hard conversations with their staff. They have difficulty firing people who needed to have been let go months ago.

Whether or not you’re positively or negatively influenced by your “anti-mentor,” the critical thing is to realize that you are influenced by this person, to begin with.

Ask yourself: Who is the worst boss I’ve ever had? Then reflect. In what ways are you consciously or unconsciously reacting to your experience with this person? Are those reactions to this person – your “anti-mentor” – helping your team? Or, are they hurting?

Your worst boss is with you in more ways than you think.


Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

One Reply to “The Anti-Mentor: How a bad boss influences our leadership style”

  1. Hi Claire – thought-provoking article! My favourite read of 2018 (‘How to Lead’ by Jo Owens) is very clear on the subject of bad bosses – avoid! And find yourself someone better. He reckons you only learn how to be a good leader by being managed by one yourself.

    If you are asking, the worst boss I ever had sabotaged my work. Actual sabotage that damaged machinery. This was pretty dangerous, it wasn’t an office job, but offshore in the oil industry. Me and my colleague couldn’t understand what had happened but when I went to another job, I met someone who had worked for that boss before. He exploded and said if he arrived on a boat and saw that man he would walk right off again. Turned out he made a habit of doing this, so he could claim credit for diagnosing the fault and fixing it. I suppose the lesson to learn from that ‘anti-mentor’ is to not be a psychopath, not a trap I was likely to fall into anyway!

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