What Mentors Can’t Teach You, Anti-Mentors Can

The anti-mentor

Mentors are important. They can fast-track the learning curve with experience and insight that you just can’t get out of a textbook. But there’s some things they can’t teach you.

Sometimes, you need an anti-mentor.

An anti-mentor teaches you what NOT to do. They lead by example and so their lessons are very powerful. We’ve all had them, and probably didn’t realize they were teaching us something at the time. Or that what they were teaching was so valuable.

I’ve had a couple of bosses who really liked to tear a strip off people. Basically, when something went wrong, they’d be in your face screaming, berating, and carrying on like maniacs. And usually, right in front of everyone else. They’ve taught me a lot.

An Anti-Mentor Story

Years ago, when I was a supervisor, my boss and anti-mentor started tearing a strip off one of my guys in the plant. It was pretty bad, and to make matters worse, it was for something small that was completely not his fault.

Everyone was standing around watching, speechless. But I’d had enough so I got in between him and his current victim. I usually got a lot of respect from him but the challenge set him off and he started in on me.

It escalated to the point where I was about as angry as I’ve ever been. Which was unsettling, and I put a lot of thought into what had happened.

What I learned (a few times):

  1. Focusing on the right things is key. When you only point out the problem to someone, they focus on the problem instead of the solution. So the problem keeps coming back again and again. 
  2. Freaking out is a time waster. It doesn’t solve the current problem. It just wastes valuable time that could be spent fixing the problem.
  3. Anti-mentors have a leadership ceiling. Business is about relationships, and at a certain level nobody wants to deal with someone who’s difficult to deal with. And they won’t.

Fast Forward to the Lesson Learned Well

A couple years later I became the plant / operations manager, (remember lesson #3?).

I had a good group of people. But what I needed was a great team. I never tore a strip off anybody. When we had a problem or a screw-up, I created the attitude of “Let’s fix it, learn from it, and move forward”.

Over time, everybody started focusing on solutions rather than just the problems. They became a team. They gave a damn. And that freed up my time to get into the business side of the business where I learned a lot from some really amazing mentors.

But it’s what I learned about what not to do from an anti-mentor that made it possible.

12 thoughts on “What Mentors Can’t Teach You, Anti-Mentors Can”

  1. haha Good one Michael.

    I’m sure most people have had a few anti-mentors. But it’s very easy to lose the lessons they can teach us in all the drama and just write them off as lunatics.

    We learn more from failures than we do from successes … our own and other people’s. And as long as we’re paying attention, nobody does anti-success better than a good anti-mentor.

  2. This is a wonderful writing about how not to lead. Leading by example is fantastic but the ability to recognize how not to lead by someone else’s example is huge.

    When that event happened and every was speechless, I wonder how that guy who was dressing that fellow down felt. And I’m sure this gentleman also reached his ceiling shortly after that event.

    Here’s to Your LifetoSuccess,

    John Clark, LifetoSccess.com

  3. Shane, very very well written. I have often thought of a few of these people (I’ve called them Reverse Mentors, but ANTI- is much better). One in particular loved to tear strips off people. The wierdest thing was he ran a non-profit organisation that’s there to be a resource to people, to HELP people. But unfortunately it was all about him. He would choose to micromanage everything, speak at every public occasion (though he is an offensive public speaker) and would refuse to teach any of us younger workers anything (I assume that was insecurity not selfishness) and loved to scream and intimidate people.

    I haven’t worked for him for years. Last month, I delivered the “wedding message” during a friend’s wedding ceremony. Afterwards, he rushes up to me and grabs my arm and in a loud voice declares “I taught you everything you know!”

    I just laughed.

    “Anti-mentors have a leadership ceiling” – they certainly do. His organisation is currently haemoraging people and money. And the only people he now has with him are yes-men and clutzes.

    I continue to draw on his life for lessons in “don’t”.

  4. Hi John,

    Events like the one in my story are very emotionally charged. He wasn’t aware of how wrong his behaviour was at the time, but he did sort of admit to me later that he’d stepped over the line.

    It wasn’t soon after, but yeah, the ceiling eventually did cave in.

    Hey Pete,

    Thanks! And thanks for sharing your story. I think that micromanagers are one form of anti-mentor (and screamers are another). So that’s a very accomplished anti-mentor you had the privilege of working with – haha

    “… I taught you everything you know! …”

    That’s very funny. Because ironically, he did teach you something. He just doesn’t know that it’s how NOT to do things.

  5. Shane Great article. It is a tragedy that people in leadership roles abdicate their responsibility to lead by allowing toxic emotions to rule them and ruin their reluctant followers. I agree with your point regarding the ceiling. Leadership is a relationship, tearing a strip off someone will not build anything but resentment.

  6. Hi Ron,

    Thanks! Anti-mentors are tragic heroes in some ways. A lot of times they mean well. They just don’t have the tools to lead effectively so they try to lead by force.

    It works for them in the short term, so they keep doing it. Which is part of the tragedy.

Comments are closed.