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Dealing with Incompetent Leaders

By Carole Nicolaides

As a mid-level employee, you’ve been working for the ACME Company, a manufacturing firm, for the past two years. Your job performance has been solid, and on occasion, even praiseworthy. However due to the current economic conditions – poor profit earnings, massive layoffs and company restructuring, you now find yourself working for a new boss. Ordinarily reporting to a new leader would not pose a real problem but this time it feels different -- management practices have changed. The team environment has been transformed from one of true collaboration, honest dialogue and a commitment to problem solving to one where backstabbing, finger pointing and plain fear are the norms. Congratulations – you are now under the control of an “incompetent” leader!

An “incompetent” leader by definition is someone whose action destroys camaraderie, instill gossip, encourage dishonesty, and prevent people from speaking freely. “Incompetent” leaders tend to use their own weapons to get noticed and promoted. They usually lack vision, interpersonal communication skills and confidence to resolve conflict.

You might think the term “incompetent” leaders should only be reserved for those in the company’s upper echelon such as the Chief Executive Officer of Chief Financial Offer.

After all, aren’t they the ones entrusted with setting the direction for the entire organization? While this may be true to a certain extent – CEOs do serve as the “compass” for the company, but many CEOs are not directly involved in the daily operations of their organizations. Those responsibilities fall on the shoulders of senior and middle managers. And, it is the “collective leadership” of those managers -- their style of execution, their effective ability to communicate, manage and motivate their teams that keep companies on course. If a leader lacks the competency to manage his or her team, then team morale diminishes, productivity and performance drops, and companies ultimately fail. What’s worst is the fact that today we live in a heavy Information Economy where bad news about a company spreads instantly thereby allowing competitors to profit from your company’s incompetent leadership.

In the quest to attain “better and cheaper staff,” one would think that organizations had all the advantages needed to rid their companies of every single under-performing employee – managers included. However, nothing could be farthest from the truth. Unfortunately in many cases, it is the good, high-performing, mid-level employees who first are shown the door, while ineffective managers – the ones who really need to take a hike – remain.

For whatever reason these foul apples may have been left behind; the fact that they are present causes a lot of problems either through their actions or sometimes through their inactions. The truth is that “incompetent leaders” have always existed and will continue to exist despite the best efforts from HR and other performance improvement initiatives to detect and remove them before bringing irreparable harm to an organization.

So what can you do to protect yourself and survive working for an “incompetent” leader? Here are some quick tips:

1. Do not make it a personal matter. This is a hard one, simply because working for an incompetent boss is such a personal matter. Remember, that most of these leaders do not have a problem directly with you, but they too are frustrated and are shouting loud their own insecurities -- most likely mirroring to you things that they should be doing.

2. Observe Your Boss. It might sound funny, but notice what is going on around your boss. In case you’ve known or worked with your boss before and you observe a sudden change, then your next step should be to take action right away. The problem could be as simple as someone asking him something way out of his league, or someone talking to him about you and your team. Whatever the reason might be you need to act and confront your boss as soon as possible. If you do this at the beginning, you might be able to stop a snowball effect -- not only for you but also for the entire team. Confrontation does not come easy for most people, yet if you seek a constructive conversation, have an open mind, avoid turning it into a personal attack, you might be able to ease tensions with your boss and also improve his position.

3. Accumulate Facts. Nothing is irrelevant if you work in an unhealthy environment. You need to make sure that you accumulate all the things that matter for your career -- the good as well as the bad stuff. Good things that you’ve done, bad things that have happened to you, and things that you could have done better. The key here is to have nothing against you, nothing that will give people permission to talk about you and question your character.

4. Know Your Value. You might feel beaten down, overworked, under appreciated and doubtless about your true value. Grow up! Things happen and your value does not diminish simply because one cannot see your true value. If you are a professional, do a good job, and the people that work with you will see a direct contribution to the team’s success. Then be sure that you have created your own evangelists – people who will tell others about your true value.

5. Expand Your Network. Now, more than ever, you need to think that working for a large company is not very different than working on your own. You need to learn to promote yourself. People need to know who you are, within your company and outside your company. Successful business owners never stop networking. There are so many things you can learn simply by networking. The key here is to find 2 or 3 networking initiatives that you feel comfortable doing and commit to them.

6. Seek For Comfort Outside Your Office. Many people often make this mistake. They work for an incompetent boss and they start complaining about her or him to a “good friend” who also works for the company. For whatever reason this might happen because you are seeking comfort or love. Sometimes you simply need a sounding board in order to release the pinned-up stress. Do it outside the office and avoid discussing your problems with others with whom you work.

Times have changed and even though it might seem hard to work for someone that you know is not suitable for his or her position, remember things and people appear to us to teach something. The sad reality is most “incompetent” leaders do not get fired; they just move on and reinvent themselves in new companies. The chance that you will either work with the same leaders or someone like them again before your career ends is great. However if you manage to stay calm and think about the lessons you’ve learned and how to counteract incompetent behavior, you will have all the wisdom needed in order to become a better leader yourself in future jobs.

Copyright ©2003, All Rights Reserved

Carole is President and Executive Coach of Progressive Leadership, offering business coaching and leadership training to business owners & leaders around the world. Improve your business relationships, communication, team performance and bottom line starting now. Visit for more info & subscribe to her FREE Leadership Ezine.

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