How can leadership development use antipatterns to eliminate toxic bosses?

6 mins

Why doesn’t leadership development include antipatterns?

By J. Kevin Kelly, Rhabit co-founder and CEO

In my previous life working for a talent management company before stepping out on my own to start Rhabit, I interacted with software engineers on a daily basis.  There was one particular guy whom I would often chat with just because we got along and our senses of humor jived really well.  

Every time I was over at his desk (this action alone cements the feeling that it came from a time period long ago, even if it wasn’t that far back) asking about either customer issues or the state of a feature or some other topic, I would always notice this book on his shelf.  

The title of it caught my eye every time I was there.  “SQL Antipatterns” it read.  

The non-technical explanation of SQL, at least the best one I can formulate at the moment is that SQL is a language you use for doin’ stuff with data that’s stored in databases.  That part wasn’t terribly interesting, for me it was the word “Antipatterns”.  The term means what you might think - the opposite of a pattern, in this case with the context that a “pattern” is a desirable state.  

Why are antipatterns so important?

An antipattern is the wrong, incorrect, or inferior way to achieve something.  This is super relevant to people who spend a lot of time writing SQL queries because it’s a language that allows you to achieve a result in a variety of ways through the logical approach that you build in the way you ask questions.  

What I loved about this concept here was that the goal of the book was to make you a better engineer, to help you learn and write better quality SQL that was more performant and safer, and the way that it achieved it was by showing you real examples of the opposite way of doing it right so that you could recognize when you’re doing something wrong (or recognize that the work of someone else was wrong when reviewing it). Such a cool twist on this classic idea of teaching by example.

For me, this is how I choose to think about all the stories of crappy bosses I’ve ever heard or experienced firsthand. 

They’re people who were, at the time, likely trying to reach an outcome. In some cases, they felt like they may have even delivered the outcome they were tasked with achieving. But, the way they did it could be optimized, perhaps significantly, to the benefit of their employees, the work culture surrounding them, and then ultimately the company as a whole.  

Being a great leader is really stinking hard, I am very respectful of that challenge, and so I think it only logically follows that it’s not terribly uncommon for people to have “shitty boss” stories.  These memorable moments really stick with us, perhaps fueling an endless grudge, or waiting in the shadows to be reopened like a partially healed wound to inflict further pain and suffering (allow me a little license for melodrama here if you would).  

For me, framing these failings as antipatterns to remember in order to inform my own behavior as a leader really helps contextualize the “why” behind many of the recommendations we make for developing great leaders. That’s my argument here - that there’s something productive to do with your shitty boss stories, there’s value in taking time to explore the leadership antipatterns. 

Identifying leadership antipatterns

I’ll give a really simple example: Empathy

Get anywhere near the term empathy in leadership development and you’ll get this huge dose of emphasis on being empathetic as a leader. It’s well researched and broadly accepted that a fundamental key to being a good leader is being empathetic to the circumstances either placed or encountered by your employees. 

This is the kind of notion that’s only surprising, novel, or even interesting to someone that’s never encountered any kind of leadership training before. Even with that knowledge that being empathetic is important, it’s still something that we drill in constantly in leadership training because it’s apparently hard to make it really fundamentally stick - and that’s where I think antipatterns get interesting. 

Instead of just telling a leader to be empathetic in a training or building an exercise where they role play being empathetic or giving them a challenge where they have to navigate some crucial conversation where they’re to maintain empathy while not losing sight of the problem they have to address - show them an example of the wrong way to do this.  

Have them tell a story of their shitty boss.  Have them tell a story of where you’ve experienced the opposite of empathy.  Maybe they’ll tell you about the time their shitty boss raised a huge stink and complained to upper management about them being the last person to get on a flight out to a customer site (not missing the flight mind you, just last to board), because you were new to the area, had never traveled for work before, and misjudged the impact of the morning traffic on the commute to the airport. 

Maybe they’ll tell you how that sowed the seeds for a fundamental resentment, lack of respect, and complete dearth of trust for that leader.  Maybe they’ll tell you about how this started that interpersonal dynamic in such a deteriorated state that it never recovered from that point on and it fundamentally was the only thing that made working for the company suck: not the pay, not the tasks, not the work itself - that one bad leader, whose behavior was so infuriating that years later, they’ll likely reference it in a blog post they’re writing about for the company they built on the premise that you can use really great software to help fix shitty leaders.

I mean, maybe

Maybe they’d say that oddly specific story that seems far too precise to be anything other than a direct retelling of the experience of the author. Whatever.

Preventing bad bosses by teaching antipatterns early

The value stems from highlighting the intensity of that negative emotional state that resulted from the leadership antipattern.  Embracing that antipattern as something that sticks with you, that you hold onto not because you wish to maintain an undying grudge - forgiving that person is fine, it’s remembering the lesson that really matters, use that context to shape your leadership.  

The antipattern here explains why you’re being taught to be empathetic - you want to be a leader who is trusted, who is respected, who builds a positive connection between themselves and the people they lead. It reinforces not only the correct pattern but it gives you a preview of the consequences of failing to lead with empathy, all those downstream effects and impact that it has on the person, how they still remember to this day that moment of failure, it really crystalizes the way you can learn from mistakes. 

I think another part of talking about leadership antipatterns is that they can carry a real catharsis in the process.  One executive that has been incredibly successful in his career that I worked with was once observed telling people “Make sure you have someone that you can talk to about what you’re going through.  If there’s something at work that you’re not happy about, someone or something that you need to complain about, make an effort to find someone who will listen to that, otherwise, you’re going to go nuts”

At that moment it was openly acknowledging the fallibility of every work environment - that people aren’t perfect, that companies are formed of imperfect people making mistakes all the time, and instead of pretending that wasn’t the case if he was openly acknowledging the value of being able to experience the catharsis of complaint.  I think telling stories of leadership antipatterns is great for the catharsis of complaint, especially when you’re doing this in the frame of growth.  You’re looking at the antipattern, the mistake, the thing you’re complaining about with the goal of not only not repeating it but inverting it and doing the opposite of it. 

So there you have it, go forth, encourage discourse and sharing around the antipatterns of leadership, embrace them, and through this and maybe a really helpful interpersonal feedback tool like Rhabit, you too can prevent shitty bosses. 

Need a few ideas on how to get started? Watch our webinar with the author of "A Busy Leader's Guide to Caring Leadership", then check out our Leadership Development tools. The path to leadership nirvana is shorter than you think.

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