New mantra: Bad boss is your fault
Want to deal with a bad boss? First, stop complaining. Unless your boss breaks the law, you don't have a bad boss; you have a boss you are managing poorly. Pick on your boss all you want, but if you were a top employee, you wouldn't let your boss's problems bring you down.
Everyone has something to offer. Find that in your boss– and focus on learning everything you can.
Or leave. The good news is that in most cases, you don't have to leave. You just need to manage your relationship with your boss with more empathy, more distance, and more strategy.
Overcome incompetent skills by leveraging others
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 conducted most communication with him via phone, and when other people didn't, 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 that he would not otherwise have let me in on. 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 grumbled that she was terrible, and I should fire her. Then he announced she needed more responsibilities. I should have sensed something was up, but I didn't. 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. He had knowledge and skills to offer me as long as I could manage our relationship productively. I never expected him to manage the relationship for us, because I wanted to make sure I was getting what I needed out of it.
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 will 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.