Bad boss: He still has something to teach you
My favorite example of a bad boss is one I had at a software company who refused to learn how to use a computer. I often played the role of secretary even though I was a vice president. He once said to me, "You're such a fast typist!" And I thought, "You're such an incompetent, lazy idiot."
But in truth, he was not. He was a top negotiator of government contracts. I stepped back and recognized that he was overwhelmed with the prospect of changing the way he had been working for 20 years, and I was in a position to help him. I found that the more dependent he was on me for email, the more I was able to insert myself into high-level deals. I helped him avoid having to change, and he taught me how to be a dealmaker.
Know your boundaries
After a few big deals, I thought we had hit our groove, when I realized that this same man was having an affair with my sales manager. For months, he'd grumbled that she was terrible and I should fire her. Then he announced she needed more responsibilities. I should have sensed something was up. Then she dumped him with great fanfare, and I found myself sitting awkwardly between them in meetings.
Sure, I lost a lot of respect for them both, and it was a pain to manage the sales person after that. But the awkward situation didn't mean that I couldn't learn a lot from my boss. And it didn't mean that I couldn't continue to forge important relationships with his important friends. As long as I did not have to act in an immoral way, my boss's issues were not my problem.
Always weigh your benefits
A good boss would have learned to type and never would have thought of delegating his typing to a vice president. But I didn't have a good boss. I had a typical boss, one with poor execution of good intentions. I could have spent my time complaining. There was a lot to complain about. Instead I always approached him with empathy ("I'm sorry she dumped you"), and I always knew my boundaries ("We can't fire her. It's illegal"). Even when he was at his worst, I never took what he said personally ("When you are done yelling, I'd be happy to talk to you").
Aside from cutting a deal, he didn't have a lot of management skills, and this gap left more room for me to shine. My solid interpersonal skills helped fill in what he was missing and helped me to get what I wanted: a reluctant and difficult– but ultimately very useful– mentor.
So take another look at the boss you call bad. Think about what motivates him: What is he scared about that you can make easier? What is he lacking that you can compensate for? What does he wish you would do that you don't? Once you start managing this relationship more skillfully, you'll be able to get more from your boss in terms of coaching and support: You'll be able to tip the scales from the bad boss side to the learning opportunity side.
In fact, you should always hope for a little incompetence on your boss's part. The hole in his list of talents provides a place for you to shine. The point, after all, is for you to shine, and no one shines when they're complaining.
Penelope Trunk has worked for a lot of companies and started a few of her own, and now she's too busy to continue writing her column. This good advice is still relevant today, though.