Managing a Boss Who Doesn’t Lead Well

Strategic Thinking: How to Navigate the Chaos

As part of this month’s focus on strategic thinking, I wanted to address an issue that my clients raise on a regular basis: the boss who doesn’t lead well.

This boss comes in many guises, but typically has some or all of these traits:

  • Inaccessible to the team, through frequent travel or closed-door meetings,
  • Fails to communicate company strategy and team objectives (why projects are essential),
  • Doesn’t provide individual guidance on goals or development for the team,
  • Manages by reacting; constantly “putting out fires,”
  • Appears scattered in his or her goals, and
  • Doesn’t hold the team accountable to standards and deadlines

management tips on managing chaosReporting to this boss is frustrating. It may be difficult to pin her down on the most critical priorities. For her, everything is a top priority and has to be done now, despite the physical impossibility of such demands.

This boss may regularly upend last week’s priorities, thus wasting resources and energy, and eroding the dedication of the team.

The reason you ended up with this boss might be out of your control. He could be the newly hired SVP of Sales. She may have been promoted to the CFO position too soon. Whatever the case, your job is to manage above your pay grade without becoming insubordinate or politically toxic.

Here are four steps you can take to navigate this situation:


1. Find your own answers. This one is tricky because a lack of leadership skill can be accompanied by a sensitive ego. Without going over your boss’ head, you need to learn about the overall company strategy. Then, you need to uncover the top two or three objectives for your team that line up with that strategy. To discover this information, you will need to build alliances in other departments, which is always a good thing to do.


2. Support your boss’ success. You might not want to hear this: For now, he is the boss. Your boss may simply be overwhelmed by the learning curve of a new position. He might lack strategic thinking skills. Whatever the case, your job is to take things off his plate, to help him, your team, and the company to succeed. Pitch in, make the boss look good, and document your contributions.


3. Play to team strengths where possible. Can you shift duties among your direct reports to better play to strengths and increase productivity? If you are a solo contributor, this may mean a bit of quietly “leading from behind” by pitching in with team members to shore up skill gaps.


4. Assess your long-term future. Observe the evolution of your boss over time. What are her underlying motivations? Is it looking good to the CEO, or always having the right answer? Or, has she surprised you by adapting effectively to the demands of the role?


Whatever your answers, there are always areas within your control. The key is finding ways to make things better now, ensure some successes in your role, and buy some time to assess your next career move.