The Alleged Boss

Cam: I've... really enjoyed working for you, Dr. Brennan.
Brennan: In fact, Dr. Saroyan, I worked for you.
Cam: We both know better.
Bones

Maybe he is hopelessly incompetent. Maybe he was set up as a leader in early episodes, but Characterization Marches On. Maybe he's an Obstructive Bureaucrat that presides over a band of Bunny Ears Lawyers who've long ago seized control. Maybe his second in command is Hyper Competent Sidekick, and has been pulling the strings for years. Regardless of the reason, this trope is about bosses who just don't act like bosses.

There are four main types:
  1. A boss who is so incompetent and clueless that he does not even realize that he has no real power.
  2. A boss who does not act like one (e.g., wants to be best buds with the employees) but still has real power in the company and should not be directly disobeyed or offended.
  3. A boss who acts like a 'proper boss' but actually lacks the power to make the employees always obey him. Often the problem is caused by a few Bunny Ears Lawyer types whom he simply cannot afford to fire.
  4. A positive version: a boss who exchanges power and control for the friendship of trusted "subordinates", usually as part of workplace True Companions.

Any Obstructive Bureaucrat or Reasonable Authority Figure is very prone to this.

Any Bunny-Ears Lawyer, Hyper Competent Sidekick, Cowboy Cop or Almighty Janitor is very prone to causing this.

Compare Authority in Name Only.

Nothing to do with video game Bosses.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime  

  • Misato in Neon Genesis Evangelion is qualified. Her orders come off as more motherly than bossy, and she acts like a sister at home.
  • In One Piece, Luffy's the captain of the Straw Hats but usually doesn't act like it. Particularly towards the beginning of the show, he tended to follow orders more than give them, prompting several characters to point out that Nami acted more like the captain than the actual captain. However, this has been changing as the story goes on: Luffy gives orders and makes decisions for the crew a lot more often now.
    • In general, Luffy has a very laissez-faire approach to captaining. Everybody on the crew does whatever they want most of the time, and later follow him when he takes action, due to him having earned their admiration and loyalty. Small requests of his can sometimes be ignored, and members of the crew (Nami) even physically abuse him sometimes.
  • Saki Vashtal from Area 88: closest to type 3. While not incompetent, Saki is not an outstanding leader and generally lacks the ability to motivate people to go out of their way to do things for him. The pilots follow orders mostly because it's what they're paid to do. And they can refuse his orders if they can afford the $5000 dock to their pay. In an emergency situation, after the Wolfpack decimated all of the planes at the base, Saki was manipulated into a bargain where he offered to pay prize money, fuel, weapons, and repairs on the ten handpicked pilots that would fly the replacement planes sent by HQ.
  • Urara Shiraishi from Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches. It's easy to forget that she's actually the president of the Supernatural Studies Club because she usually acts like a normal member and lets the others take charge. She may assert herself and give orders if she really thinks it's necessary, though.

     Comic Books  

  • In Fury: My War Gone By, the character Barracuda is in charge of his outfit despite only being a sergeant and having two officers above him. This is what makes Nick Fury suspect corruption.

     Film 

  • In The Phantom Menace, Supreme Chancellor Valorum, a Type 3, tries to get things done, but despite the power his position theoretically has he is stymied at every turn by assorted political factions of Corrupt Politicians and Obstructive Bureaucrats, as well as the closet Sith Lord that he mistakenly believes is one of his supporters and who has arranged to keep him on the defensive over baseless allegations of corruption while he makes a play of his own for the chancellorship. Even the Jedi Order, while publicly respecting his office, tend to make decisions within their own Council and do not consult him.

     Literature  

  • This is a major theme in Atlas Shrugged. Alleged Bosses are among the book's prime villains, and they are villains precisely because they fail to act like bosses. Case in point: Jim Taggart, who is the president of a large railroad company but is so spineless and incompetent that it's his sister Dagny, the company's Vice President, who actually runs things.
  • At the beginning of Brothers in Arms, Miles Vorkosigan faux-modestly claims to be this, saying that he just plays the part of the Admiral while Commodore Tung does the real work. This isn't complete rubbish - originally Miles relied on Tung's experience a lot - but it's not the whole truth, and Elli immediately calls him out on it.
  • The Space Trilogy: Jules is nominally the director of N.I.C.E., but he's only a pompous windbag who's clueless about what really goes on there. Wither and Frost are actually in charge.

     Live Action Television  

  • Bones: Cam may struggle—and occasionally succeed—at maintaining her authority, but it doesn't always work. Generally Type 4 or 2.
  • Beckett is a Type 3 or 4, from Castle. Her team loves her, but doesn't always obey her orders. Summed up when Ryan and Esposito pull a risky and illegal stunt and are surprised when she chews them out.
    Ryan: Wow, you actually sound like our boss.
    Beckett: Just tell me ahead of time next time so I can help!
  • Who runs NCIS again? Morrow, Shepard, and Vance, or Gibbs? Hint: he can only be killed by silver bullets. Maybe. Type 3, and with Vance it seems to be diverging into Type 4.
  • On NCIS: Los Angeles Hetty is firmly in charge of the LA office and the agents know that she will punish them if they get out of line. However, the feeling among some NCIS higher-ups is that she oversteps her authority and treats her superiors as Alleged Bosses (similar to Gibbs). On a smaller note Callen is the senior agent-in-charge and technically the boss of the other agents on his team but while he is the leader, he lets Hetty handle all the boss duties.
  • In Plain Sight: Stan thinks he's in charge. He really does. He's slowly graduating from Type 3 and 4.
  • Type 2. Station owner Jimmy James in NewsRadio. While he occasionally comes down for serious business, most of the time he just hangs around and shoots the breeze.
  • The Office (US): Michael Scott. Over Michael's head, there's David Wallace and Jan... no wonder Dunder Mifflin goes bankrupt. Charles Miner seems to be the only person they ever hired who's capable of exercising actual authority.
  • Jack of Just Shoot Me! is a Type 2, hanging around and being friendly with his workers, but willing to assert his authority when necessary.
  • On Leverage the team go after a standard Corrupt Corporate Executive target, a CEO embezzling from his company. However, once they infiltrate the company they discover that the guy is incompetent and so overwhelmed by his responsibilities that he has no control over what is happening in the company. He is a former football star who inherited the company and the position. The team now has to discover which of the employees is manipulating the company from behind the scenes and setting up the CEO as a patsy. Later subverted when it's explained he's a decent executive ... when everything is explained in football metaphors.
  • The Closer: Brenda pretty much gets her way, regardless of Chief Pope's opinions. Occasionally subverted, but usually not.
  • Type 4. Within The West Wing True Companions, hierarchy and rank tend to get blurred.
    C.J.: I'm assigning an intern from the press office to that web site. They're going to check it every night before they go home. If they discover you've been there, I'm going to shove a motherboard so far up your ass...What?
    Josh: Well... technically, I outrank you.
    C.J.: So far up your ass!
    • But ALWAYS Averted with President Bartlett.
  • Han from 2 Broke Girls, who gets no respect from any of his employees. They also get away with a lot, including being rude to nasty customers—which is entertaining and funny, but likely to get you fired under a good boss.
  • Col. Henry Blake from M*A*S*H was supposed to be in charge of the 4077th but outside of the Operating Room most of his time was spent boozing, recreating, or philandering. His Hyper Competent Sidekick was well understood to be the person actually running the camp. Also the dueling doctor factions who were supposed to be Henrys subordinates were frequently overstepping or walking all over him in order to carry out their zany schemes. Blake's replacement, Col. Potter, was able to command a lot more respect and thus appear more in charge.
    • Henry Blake was a bit of a mix between varieties 1 and 4 of this trope: He was (mostly) a genuinely nice guy, and meant well, but had no idea how to run things, would do anything he could to dodge responsibility, and would openly defer to his subordinates whenever any decision had to be made. He was still a fairly competent doctor, however, and would even go out of his way to do the right and decent thing on occasion. Because of this, and because, after all, he never asked for the command that he was so woefully incapable of handling, many of the other characters on the show felt true affection and comradeship towards him. His Hyper Competent Sidekick even saw him as a bit of a father figure.
  • House: Type 3. Even though Cuddy is the one in charge, House tends to walk all over her to get what he wants. She is still an incredibly competent boss, however, and is usually able to stop him from going too far.
  • A mild example is Colonel Mitchell in the last two seasons of Stargate SG-1. While he's nominally the team leader, as he points out to General Landry Daniel and Teal'c are civilians and Carter's the same rank as him, while he's the new guy on a team of living legends, so getting them to do something they don't want to is a little tricky. Type 4.
    • In "The First Commandment", O'Neill lampshades this is reference to himself when first Carter and then Connor refuse to follow an order in quick succession, leading to the infamous line:
    O'Neill: Does it say Colonel anywhere on my uniform?
  • On The X-Files, Walter Skinner is type 3. He eventually gets replaced due to his inability to make Mulder and Scully obey him. Alvin Kersh, the new boss, would be the same type, since it's not like Mulder, Scully and/or Dogget and Reyes listen to him any better, except for the fact that he plays dirty and has better connections within the Bureau than Skinner.
  • The Wire, episode "Boys Of Summer": Asher, though he does suit Lester's purposes just fine.
  • On WKRP in Cincinnati, station manager Arthur Carlson. He only has the job because his tycoon of a mother owns the station and, it's eventually revealed, she's using it as a tax write-off. He's a good and decent man, he means well, and the staff all like him OK, but the station is actually run by program director Andy Travis and (in a subtle sort of way) the receptionist Jennifer Marlowe.

     Tabletop Games  

  • Warhammer 40,000: Orks think humans employ this trope. For orks, the biggest ork is automatically the leader; there is no easy way for them to tell one human from another, save their clothes. Fortunately for the orks, they've figured out that the most Bling of War / biggest hat is a very good way for commanders to identify themselves, and loot Commissar Caps to copy the effect.

     Video Games  

  • Instructor Quistis Trepe from Final Fantasy VIII is mostly a type-1, with shades of type-2 due to her defining character trait—that is, her exceedingly unwelcome and unrequited crush on Squall. Despite being one of the teachers at an elite paramilitary academy, many students don't particularly like or respect her. Even her trio of obsessed groupies seem to be interested in her only as an object of lust rather than an authority figure. And even if she hadn't quit, she probably would've been fired for letting Seifer escape from the discipline room after Dollet.
    • Rinoa Heartilly, "princess" of the Forest Owls, is another type-1.5 for most of the first disc. Squall chews her out for not taking her role as leader of a resistance movement more seriously pretty early on, and even Quistis gets fed up enough with her bubblegum rebellion and half-baked plans to give her a tongue-lashing. As leaders go, Rinoa actually makes Quistis look competent.
    • Laguna Loire is a solid type-4. While it can be presumed he was officially the leader of whatever squad he, Ward, and Kiros were in the Galbadian Army, the other two remain loyal to him even after they leave the military because he's their friend, first and foremost.

     Webcomics  

  • The chain store the main cast of Between Failures works at goes through managers so quickly that none of them ever get the chance to be real bosses, letting Thomas effectively run the whole store the way he wants to.
  • Cole from PvP is treated with little respect as a boss since he lets his employees get away with their zany hijinks. Recently the office had a new employee hired to help with finances, which Cole was not consulted about and was mocked when he complained.

     Western Animation  

  • Rebecca Cunningham of TaleSpin plays with this. She has Control Freak issues and is perfectly willing to push Baloo and others around in her schemes; however, she is usually all bark and no bite, and usually acts more as a bossy childish friend than an authority figure, something Baloo takes advantage of time and time again.
  • In The Simpsons, Karl is apparently Homer's supervisor. He mentions this only once to get him to stop insulting him and for the rest of the series acts as Homer's drinking buddy and even joins in on some of his antics.
  • Pops from Regular Show is technically higher in position compared to the other park employees due to being the park owner's son. However he rarely asserts his position, lets Benson run things, and pretty much acts more like a regular co-worker.

     Real Life  

  • Acting like this in real life (as a wimpy boss or insubordinate employees) is an excellent way to get fired. There are some places where hierarchy gets blurred, but you have to be careful.
    • That being said, many academic studies of leadership consider type 2/4 to be very effective in moderation.