What to do with an Incompetent Boss

The first time I encountered an incompetent boss was fairly early in my career. It didn’t take me long to discover that I had nothing to learn from him. Of course, the man had excellent credentials. He also had the experience. And to top it all he was visiting faculty at one of the respected business schools. So on the surface, it would have been very difficult to find fault with him, or to blame management for his recruitment. But as many who have had to deal with an incompetent boss, it is quite a frustrating experience. One has to keep pretending its Ok. It is dangerous to act smarter than your boss for fear of antagonising him. In my case, it didn’t take long for my assistant to realise that he was incompetent. In a few months, other departments had also taken notice. This was clear from the way how everyone approached me instead of him, even on important matters. But, I was never the aggressive kind, who would take advantage. So I continued to show utmost respect and to involve him in everything I did. I also tried to protect him from other people.

And just as I was wondering if I should be going to the CEO and asking if I could work with someone else, I got the first big break of my career. My CEO called me and asked me to make a presentation to the Chairman of a very large multi-national company, one of our most respected clients. This was unusual. If one expected my CEO to follow the rules, he should have ideally called my boss and asked him to make the presentation. But no, it was me. To make matters worse, my CEO asked me to report directly to him on the presentation. He wanted to be kept abreast on every aspect of it almost on a daily basis. The best part was that my boss didn’t resent this. Sometimes I wonder how things might have turned out if he had.

Finally the big day arrived. My presentation was a great success. My immediate boss was also there, and I could see he was proud of me. One of his redeeming features was that he never had any malice. My CEO was ecstatic. The client was very pleased. I couldn’t have had a better day. That was when I thought about, some of the advantages of not having a super competent boss.

  1. If your boss leaves something to be desired it means that more work might flow to you. This is good and bad. But I have often felt that the good overweighs the bad.
  2. You have the opportunity to shine a little more because the public gaze is now no longer on your boss who has been written off. As a result, it is likely that you will have more opportunities to show yourself and your competence for the next job.
  3. You will have more direct contact with your boss’s boss, because he will be sure to notice you. This is good from the point of view of future promotions.
  4. If your immediate boss doesn’t feel threatened that you are so good, then its fine. But I guess if feels threatened he would try to discredit you and this could be a big negative.

“I hate incompetence. I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate. But it didn’t make me want to rule people. Nor to teach them anything. It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary.”

Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

But there are downsides. First it always helps to have a mentor, and typically your boss is normally your best mentor. So if you have an incompetent boss, you need to find yourself another mentor. I found myself the head of another department. I watched him closely, admired him and kept quite close to him. In the process I learnt a lot.

I also found a client, whom I decided was a good mentor. He inspired me, challenged my thinking, and was very fond of me. Finding two people to admire and follow, did a lot for my career.

In the meantime of course the expected happened. My boss left within a year. I guess it was clear to him, that he was not making it in the company. I got promoted to his position. Something that might never have happened if I had a strong, competent boss.

So if you have an incompetent boss, be patient. Don’t fret. Maybe there is something that you can exploit from the situation that can benefit you in the long run. Maybe you will shine more than under a strong, competent boss. Maybe you will get promoted faster. Think of ways that you can take advantage of a disadvantageous situation.

There is always a positive in every negative!

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.


  1. Worse than having an incompetent boss is having one who is not only incompetent but also unwilling to learn.
    I have had that misfortune for about a year when his boss got to know about it and gave him the pink slip.

  2. Great read, Prabs. What’s more dangerous than an incompetent boss is a ‘faker’ boss. Maybe you can write about that next. Cheers!

  3. I’ve never had really incompetent bosses.

    But I have had bosses who knew their own weaknesses. They had the wisdom to surround themselves with people who were strong in their area of weakness. And they had the wisdom to give credit where it’s due.

    Which to me, is the definition of being a good boss.

    I guess I’ve just had good bosses.

    I’ve often advised people who askme which agency they should join to first find out who would be their boss in agencies that had comparable reputation and were offering a comparable remuneration.

    Choose the better boss. And you will know which agency you should opt for.

    1. Yes I agree. Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote this book called ” Horse Sense ” in which they advised people to choose the better boss, or the better horse for quick career advancement.

  4. In an organisation I know, it is a practice to “promote” every executive after three years at a level.
    So last heard of, there was a General Manager Training. No support staff! He had to do it all himself, with visiting faculty.
    And responsibilities did not increase. So an Asst Manager HrM rose to become a Genera Manager, with no change in his responsibilities not a fresh Job Profile!

    1. Yes Guruduttanna, have seen that happen. I can’t remember which book it was but the author had a chapter on ‘how to promote without really promoting”. 😀

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