How To Thrive Under Bad Leadership


I get the question a lot. How can I be a successful leader if the people above me are, well, idiots?  Or worse even, what if they are egotistical, unethical jerks?  The good news is that you can still become the right leader for your team and those around you in spite of a boss handicap.  The bad news is you will have to work a little harder and, at times, repair or prevent the damage done by people above you in the organizational food chain.

There are some key principles that you have to keep in mind though as you work to lead effectively in this kind of environment.  Here are some things to think about and remember:

Is your viewpoint accurate?

Sometimes we allow ourselves to jump on the “management is stupid” bandwagon when the leaders above us aren’t really all that bad.  It’s easy for people who don’t understand how or why decisions are made to look at them from the outside and label them negatively.  Sometimes what we call ineptitude is really just a failure of leaders to communicate more effectively about decisions they have made.  It’s easy to ridicule the decisions of others when sometimes we contributed to the problem by not getting necessary information to them or helping them communicate effectively throughout the organization.  The other trap that we often fall into is the one of believing that if I join in the chorus that is tearing the leaders above me down, it will raise my own stature as a leader.  No one, over time, becomes a better leader by tearing down those above them.

Can you cause change?

The first solution to this challenge is to help those above you be more effective.  How do you help them think differently about some of the decisions they make?  How do you help them communicate their decisions more effectively?  How do you coach them through difficult organizational changes and share information with them that they may need and not have?  By taking this approach, the right way, you become more valuable to the people above you, and you help the organization get better.  You also support your team by ensuring that management is making decisions which will help your people succeed and reach their own goals.  Never forget that if others report to you, you are in fact “management” even if you would like to think otherwise.

Don’t add to the stupidity.

The only thing worse than having to execute a bad decision, is declaring that a decision is stupid and then having to enforcing it.  This kills your credibility as a leader because it tells your team that rather than attempting to influence the decision before it was made, you simply waited for others to make the decision and are now criticizing it yet passing it along.  Work to find some positives in the decision.  Rarely are decisions made so poorly that there are no productive aspects whatsoever.  How can you take the decision and implement it in a way that accomplishes what senior leaders wanted to happen and also makes things better?  True leaders are creative.  They gather their team to think through a new policy or process in order to improve it and capture opportunity.  If you whine about the stupidity above you, you are not leading nor are you helping those whom you are responsible for.  You’re also telling your team that it’s ok to whine about the people above them – that’s you by the way.  In essence, you’re just joining the stupid people.

If you absolutely don’t agree, have that conversation with the right people.

If you just cant bring yourself to implement a decision because it’s that bad, wrong, or ethically over the line, then have that conversation with the people who made it.  There may be some bosses that are so far gone that they won’t even talk to you, but they are rare.  Use your own effective communication skills to help make the right discussion take place.  If you said “Hey I just want to learn more about what you want to be different and how we make that happen effectively”, or “I’d like to share some unintended consequences that I believe are a risk before we implement this, can we talk about that?” there are very few managers I’ve met who wouldn’t have that conversation.  And if you really are surrounded by people who wont have that discussion, then maybe you do have to look for a better place to develop as a leader.

The reality is that stupidity above you is an opportunity to make yourself more valuable.  Teach your team to find the positive, Listen as they share their concerns and model the way you would want them to behave if you yourself made a decision that needed a little more thought.  Anyone can lead in the midst of great ideas above them.  Your opportunity when misguided decisions are made is to become a leader who can rise to the challenge in less than optimal conditions and still be successful.

Leading Through Influence

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