Incompetent leaders. These are the people who continue to lead even when they are awful at it. My friend Vince Molinaro describes them as the ones who “make bonehead decisions, leave a trail of disasters and simply don’t have the right instincts for leadership.” Vince’s advice to these leaders is that they just leave. But assuming he hasn’t gotten through to your incompetent leader yet, what can you do?
It’s always a delicate balance when working for an incompetent leader. You want to leave their incompetence exposed in hopes that someone above will address it. At the same time, you don’t want to risk the business or your reputation by letting too many balls drop. Play this hand very deliberately. If the risks are relatively minor, let the natural consequences happen. When the stakes are high: err on the side of making up for the boss’ shortcomings.
Try to improve the decision-making process.
Before making high stakes decisions, ask questions about how you will decide. Suggest ways of making the decision making more rigorous, such as setting criteria, engaging external stakeholders, and doing contingency planning. If you get a legitimate opportunity to raise it with your boss’s boss or peers, ask if they are involved in the decision making—at least to signal that a decision is being made.
Use multiple influence points.
If you and your teammates are aligned, you can each use your one-on-one interactions to try to influence your boss. If the boss is neglecting stakeholder management, you can offer to discuss your plans with key people. If important parts of the plan have yet to be fleshed out, take time to discuss the aspects that affect you and have your teammates do the same for their areas.
Learn from mistakes.
Each new experience with your incompetent leader will teach you more about their gaps. Factor those gaps into planning for your next project. Did she grossly underestimate how long things would take? Did he misread his boss and fail to get approval? As frustrating as these experiences are, you need to store them so you can be better prepared when the situation arises again.
Do the right thing.
If you’re lucky, your incompetent leader will also be apathetic and hands-off. It’s probably wishful thinking, but just in case your bad leadership cloud has a benign neglect silver lining… With the incompetent apathetic boss, you just replace a single leader with management-by-committee. Agree with your teammates on what needs to be done and then self-manage the team to execute. This is probably the best-case scenario of incompetent leadership because it gives you a great stretch opportunity.
It can be frustrating, embarrassing, and exhausting having to compensate for an incompetent leader. Be sure to take the high road. Even when it’s unfair, you will be judged and evaluated based on how you handle yourself. After all, that’s all you can control.
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