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Modern Major General

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"For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century
But still in matters vegetable, animal and mineral
I am the very model of a modern major-general"
Major General Stanley, The Pirates of Penzance

The opposite of a Genius Ditz, this character proves competent at almost everything... except their actual job. A sort of adult Book Dumb, the main question on everybody's minds, in- or out-of-universe, is "How on earth did this fool get hired, especially given there are other jobs they would be far more competent at!?" (Though sometimes their Blue Blood may give you a reason to suspect nepotism.)

Different from Fake Ultimate Hero in that the latter at least puts on a ruse of being competent that could actually fool someone. When this character's actual job seems to be nonexistent, they are one of The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.

Like the Pointy-Haired Boss, may be a result of The Peter Principle, where they have been promoted from a position which they mastered to one which they have not, or The Dilbert Principle, where someone's been Kicked Upstairs to get them away from the workflow.

Compare Genius Ditz, which is a character who is ditzy and unskilled except for being brilliant in their actual job, and Bunny-Ears Lawyer, whose quirks belie their true competence. This can also be combined with High Hopes, Zero Talent when they're working at their dream job. Contrast I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder and the Almighty Janitor. Civilians also count. A Modern Major General who actually is a military leader may overlap with General Failure.

If you were looking for the song and works which parody it, see Major General Song.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Squid Girl. Ika Musume can accomplish incredible feats ranging from Super-Strength to advanced mathematics to fine art... but due to her childish nature she's utterly incompetent at her stated job of "invading the surface". At one point she even lampshades this.
  • The Team Rocket Terrible Trio of Pokémon: The Series are in fact often implied to be very talented individuals and have actually beat Ash and his comrades a few times in competitions just by playing fair. Unfortunately, the three think of themselves as fearsome criminal masterminds, and devote nearly all their time to stealing Pokémon or playing dirty, despite it always backfiring miserably due to Laser-Guided Karma or their own incompetence at being villains.
  • Gate: Pina Co Lada, good diplomat, bad war commander, despite the fact that she is the leader of the knightly order.

    Comic Books 
  • The extremely minor Daredevil villain the Jester is a would-be actor who, in a bid to advance his career, enrolled (and earned high marks) in every course of study that he thought might make him more employable. Well... every course except acting lessons.
  • Hindsight Lad (later simply "Hindsight") of the New Warriors wanted to be a superhero and coerced the team into letting him join. Having no powers or fighting skills he turned out to be terrible at it, but when the team realized he was an excellent strategist and analyst, he became a useful asset anyway, just not in the field. (Well, until he turned on them later, but that's another story.)

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Max Fischer from Rushmore is enthusiastically involved in almost every extracurricular activity there is, but he's flunking his actual classes.
  • Max Smart in the 2008 movie Get Smart is cast in a role something like this: many characters remark that he's probably the finest intelligence analyst in CONTROL. However, he desperately wants to be a field agent — and when he's finally promoted, he's not entirely incompetent, but he is notably over-eager, naive, bumbling and prone to making a fool of himself.

  • In the Brother Cadfael books, Brother Oswin is hopelessly clumsy, refuses to admit that putting cold things into hot places or vice versa shatters them, and is Cadfael's assistant for several books. Cadfael generally has him do all the easy stuff that doesn't put him near fragile things or herbal remedies — especially the ones that could be used as poison. He does get better over time and in the end is quite competent — it just took him a lot longer to learn than Cadfael's other assistants.
  • Captain Trips from the Wild Cards books. He's a genius biochemist — was one of the best in the world, before his drug-and-superhero problems. He manages to be a competent detective when working with Tachyon on the Swarm case. In regular life, he tries to be a businessman, but couldn't sell tuna to dolphins.
  • Terry Pratchett's Discworld series:
    • Lt. Blouse in Monstrous Regiment has an element of this, since his genius with military tactics and technology doesn't make him the Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass you might expect. War in "the real world" isn't a neat game of strategy, making him relatively incompetent as a leader aside for a few exceptions. That said, he was originally a highly competent clerk and intelligence officer, and only given a battlefield assignment when the army literally ran out of other officers. When given a chance to flex that skillset, he is an absolute beast. He is also smart and above all self-aware enough to let his ultra-competent Sergeant Rock run the things he isn't good at. Usually.
    • In Interesting Times, the Agatean Empire's bureaucracy is full of these. Like Imperial China, people are promoted in the bureaucracy through exams. At one point, Rincewind interrupts the exam for the position of assistant nightsoil remover, which involves writing a poem about a flower.note  To be precise, the goal of writing poetry was also to test candidates' linguistic proficiency, an extremely important skill for anyone whose job more or less boils down to interpreting and writing various texts. Unfortunately, the job in question was about shoveling animal manure, not handling paperwork. Similarly, Lord Hong came to the conclusion that the examination for weapons maker should have more to do with proving the applicant knows how to work with iron rather than write poems about it.
  • The Austrian general Weyrother is portrayed this way in War and Peace. A good two or so pages is dedicated to how all the other generals at the war council prior to the Battle of Austerlitz despise him. He has a knack for drawing up troop dispositions and knowing terrain, just nothing to do with strategy or winning battles.
  • Officers of this type are common in the Union army of The First Law series, many of whom seem to be more interested in how good they look in their uniforms than in the actual work of soldiering. There are many variations - for instance, General Jalenhorm is noted in The Heroes as having the makings of a truly excellent junior officer, so it's a real shame that the king insisted on promoting him to general, a position he is absolutely terrible in.
  • In the Asian Saga book Tai-Pan, the British official in charge of the fledgling Hong Kong, William Longstaff, first appears to be an imbecile who knows absolutely nothing about Chinese culture or trade, and the only reason he doesn't completely ruin everything is because he takes the advice/gets manipulated by Dirk Struan. However, when a Russian Archduke turns up unexpectedly, Longstaff is an excellent diplomat and his insight into European politics far surpasses Struan's, and he also comes up with the idea to shortcut the expensive business of buying tea from China by sneaking tea seeds to British territories in India where they can grow their own, and plays into his reputation as an out-of-his-depth buffoon to ensure that neither the Chinese nor the traders realise that he's tricked them into putting themselves out of business. He's not an idiot, merely in the wrong place for his skillset.
  • Saber of Fate/strange fake is a seeming Master of All talents, ranging from combat to the fine arts to lovemaking. There were only two things in life he was not very good at: governance and the English language, which is a huge problem when you're Richard the Lionheart, king of England.note 

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Addams Family: Gomez Addams speaks English, Spanish, and Italian (at the very least—he is sometimes shown speaking other languages but those tend to be...rather poorly translated, though that could simply be the writers getting it wrong); builds a robot (with a few glitches, but still) and a computer that perfectly predicts the outcomes of horse races, in his home, in the 1960s; constructs a working replica of a several-hundred-year-old harpsichord in 3 days despite previously knowing nothing about how to build a harpsichord (the replica isn't good enough to fool an actual expert, but a non-expert can't tell the difference and it sounds just as good); is a skilled fencer and near impossibly good knife-thrower (throwing multiple knives not only into the centre of a target, but into the hilts of other knives, while the target is behind him—aiming over his shoulder with a mirror), and at least a decent shot with both a gun and a crossbow (he doesn't have Morticia's Improbable Aiming Skills with the latter but can still hit an apple thrown into the air); and seems to be quite well-read in the works of Shakespeare (though again, not as much as Morticia, given that in one episode he quotes Milton but mistakenly believes it to be Shakespeare until Morticia corrects him) and Edgar Allen Poe. He also plays chess, though how good he is at this is never really established. The films add singing and dancing to the list of his talents (he dances in the show, too, but John Astin never came across quite as skilled as Raul Julia)...
    • However, he is ostensibly a lawyer. At law school, students and teachers alike assumed he would never pass the bar exam, though he somehow managed it. He very rarely practices law and when he does, often loses on purpose, but even when he's not trying to lose, he's shown using Insane Troll Logic, going on tangents unrelated to the case, and being generally regarded as a joke by the judge. In one episode, he also claims to have been absent on the day he should have been taught what the fifth amendment was.
  • Wesley of Buffy and Angel started out as one of these before character development turned him into a Badass Normal. Though the guy had all the historical, demonic and magical knowledge one could ever want, he began his tenure in the shows as a spineless coward with no personal skills—hardly someone the average person would consider qualified to be a mentor figure in the battle between good and evil. Only after he was fired from the Watcher job did he develop the skills that would have made him good at it.
  • Jack from 30 Rock was put into this situation by higher-ups who moved him from the appliance division to TV production. Liz, too, is a comedy writer by background, ability and official job title, but she spends most of her time doing HR work these days.
  • Michael Scott of The Office (US) is a TERRIBLE manager, his actual job, but an almost savant-like salesman, which used to be his job and his success with which got him the manager gig in the first place.
  • Star Trek: Voyager:
    • Captain Janeway is suspected of being one of these by some viewers as she's portrayed as being rather good at science and engineering matters but inconsistent character portrayal left her rather lacking when it came to being an actual Captain. As an extension of this logic, she got Kicked Upstairs by the time of Star Trek: Nemesis, shown as a Vice Admiral on Earth. As the Mildly Military organization of Starfleet (unlike most real-world militaries) considers it a perfectly acceptable career move to decline a promotion, and Starfleet captains tend to prefer staying at that level rather than becoming a "desk jockey" admiral, one has to wonder whether even Janeway herself recognized that she'd do a better job away from the captain's chair.
    • From the same show, Neelix. He actually is a skilled scrounger and great at gathering info and otherwise dealing with the underworld of whatever region the ship is in that week. Unfortunately, he decides to make himself useful as a "survival expert", cook, and self-appointed morale officer, all of which he is absolutely terrible at. After a while Janeway makes him the ship's official ambassador, which he does rather better at.
  • The Governor of The Slammer may be an excellent entertainer, but he is really rather inept at running a prison. Lampshaded in one episode where a journalist points out that there have been several escapes in the time she has been talking to him.
  • M*A*S*H
    • Col. Henry Blake is a top-notch surgeon but is clearly out of his depth as commanding officer of a M*A*S*H unit. Fortunately, the actual clerical and day-to-day affairs are managed by Radar.
    • Lieutenant Colonel Harold Becket in Season 5's "Ping Pong" is an administrative officer who had friends pull some strings to get him a command so he could get a Combat Infantry Badge and retire a full Colonel. Unfortunately for those under him, he was a total incompetent who didn't know how to react to an order to retreat. Col. Potter had him removed from command, despite their being longtime friends, to prevent further bloodshed.
    • Colonel Woody Cooke in Season 11's "Friends and Enemies" is an identical example. Col. Potter again has him removed despite a longtime friendship but is initially resistant. Cooke didn't take it nearly as well as Becket.
    • Potter himself would be a subversion of this in his debut episode. The rest of the medical staff fear that this aged "regular army" Colonel may be an over disciplined desk jockey who can't keep up in surgery. But Potter proves to not only be a reasonable commander, but a skilled surgeon who can even teach Hawkeye a thing or two.
  • Kamen Rider Decade: Kadoya Tsukasa is good at pretty much everything he tries (except, for a while, being nice), but despite being a photographer, his pictures inevitably end up terrible.
  • Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation is supremely competent when it comes to making things with his hands, woodsmanship, and just being a general all-around manly man, but he lacks the personal, political and organizational skills and most of all the motivation to be an effective department head, which is why he palms all of his actual responsibilities off on his Hypercompetent Sidekick Leslie Knope. He is pretty good at managing her (and only her) since that boils down to "know when to let her loose and do when she does best, and know when to rein her in and prod her into directing her limitless energy elsewhere".
    • Note that he's fully aware that he's not an effective department head, but stays in his job specifically because he wants to hamper the work of government.
    • In the last season he proves that he can successfully manage when he cares about it, successfully building his own construction company. It helps that his employees are a lot closer to his attitude, and many or all of them are his relatives.
  • Jennifer Marlowe of WKRP in Cincinnati almost fits this trope. She's the smartest person at the station (and the highest paid), and it's pretty clear that the station would fall apart without her. She's the receptionist but spends most of her time making Mr. Carlson's decisions for him and playing mother to everyone else. Now, she's not incompetent as a receptionist at all, but she has shown an unwillingness to do things like take dictation or get coffee, or many other things that receptionists are supposed to do. In the pilot she acts as though getting three calls in one day is being "swamped" and starts talking about more money.
  • John Doe featured a variation, with the protagonist waking up on a beach with his head crammed full of knowledge and trivia on seemingly every topic, from the history of Jack the Ripper, to the plot of every TV show ever made, to the entire binary code of Microsoft Windows. Seemingly the only thing he knows nothing about is himself.

  • The Trope Namer is Major General Stanley from The Pirates of Penzance, who introduces himself with a long-winded song listing all of the things he knows, eventually summing up with a long verse about his complete and utter lack of military knowledge (he can barely tell the difference between a rifle and a javelin). He eventually concludes that:
    For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventurey,
    Has only been brought down the beginning of the century.
    But still in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major General.
    • It should, however be mentioned that most of the things the Major General brags about are either impossible or trivial. See Genius Bonus or The Pirates of Penzance for a more comprehensive rundown.
  • Though Major General Stanley's the Trope Namer, the concept appears in an earlier Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, H.M.S. Pinafore, in the person of First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Joseph Porter, KCB.
    Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
    If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
    If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
    Be careful to be guided by this golden rule?
    Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
    And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee!
    • Note that Major General Stanley even mentions that operetta in his song:
    Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
    And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense
  • In HONK!, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling", the goose Greylag, modeled after a WWII fighter pilot, fits this trope ideally, causing his wife Dot to lament that "his cabin lights are rather dim".

    Video Games 
  • In Choice of Robots, this trope is examined with regard to Professor Ziegler. The Professor is absolutely incompetent as a scientist, engineer, and teacher; he can't even make a good knockoff of your robots, let alone something original. However, he's very skilled in academic politics, buzzwords, pandering to the military and bringing home grant money, and his actual job at the university is to secure funding, not the research and teaching that are in his job description. He leaves that to his graduate students (most notably the PC). When he tries to sell his scientific expertise, he's able to fool the Pentagon, but Juliet sees through him pretty much instantly.
  • Father Elijah from Fallout: New Vegas was a brilliant Scribe with a natural understanding of how technology worked and how it could be used. As an Elder and leader of the Mojave Chapter, he was terrible - not just for his lack of leadership experience and skill, but because he had literally no idea of how humans worked, preferring to treat them as resources and tools to be used and discarded. During the battle at Helios One, he threw away dozens of Brotherhood lives just to try to hold the place a little longer, despite the fact that the Brotherhood had only a handful of members while the enemy - the NCR - had thousands in reserve. It was only because the remaining survivors pulled a coup and retreated that any of them survived. When you later encounter him in the Dead Money expansion, he's clearly learned nothing from the experience.
  • Felicia from Fire Emblem Fates is a highly skilled warrior, but an absolutely terrible maid due to her clumsiness and borderline-weaponized cooking skills - which is unfortunate, because that's her primary occupation and she hates fighting. In her ending, she gives up on the maid business and eventually goes on to be a celebrated general.

    Visual Novels 
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney:
    • The Judge is senile and easily swayed. He once accepted a thug with a cardboard badge as a genuine lawyer. The characters frequently comment on it, but no-one says anything to his face. This one has much to do with the Japanese history of court corruption. Put simply, judges are viewed in Japan the same way lawyers are viewed in the West. On the other hand, the Judge is also famed for almost always handing down the right verdict, though this may have more to do with Phoenix's skill as a defense lawyer than anything about the Judge himself.
    • Luke Atmey from the third game also qualifies, as his extensive vocabulary and incomprehensible metaphors make him look... somewhat competent as a detective, but he's actually not very good at it. At all. Subverted when it turns out that the reason he doesn't appear to be very good at detective work is because he is actually the criminal.
  • Ymira from Mount & Blade is a gentle and intelligent girl who seeks to join you to get away from an Arranged Marriage. She proudly boasts on her recruitment that she is a skilled poet, musician and manager of household servants. All well and good, but those are hardly vital skills for a mercenary. Eventually Subverted as her high Intelligence and low level allows her to quickly pick up stats and skills as you desire, allowing her to easily Take Several Levels in Badass.

    Web Comics 
  • From Dubious Company's bio page:
    Walter is surprisingly creative and learned in arcane theory and capable of building a variety of Magitek devices on the fly... Okay, so Walter isn't really a pirate, but he tries very hard to be a pirate...
  • One side in Erfworld is ruled by Stanley the Tool, a Jerk Jock who is completely incompetent at leadership. Before he was promoted into his current position though, though, he was a very effective soldier — and the few times you do see him fighting, he's devastatingly effective. (Unfortunately for everyone involved, leaders are too valuable to risk in combat; defeating one can end the side completely.)

    Web Original 
  • Director Tagg of Worm appears to be this in part because he is a General Ripper in a job that requires more diplomatic skills.

    Western Animation 
  • Futurama: Zoidberg is a highly skilled doctor, but only when operating on aliens. Unfortunately, almost all of his patients are humans.

    Real Life 
  • This trope is a recurring and notable feature of the armed forces of Great Britain, as noted by Gilbert and Sullivan; British historian Max Hastings once remarked that the empire "seemed to have a bottomless supply of unwarlike warrior chieftains." While by no means the norm, these characters feature prominently in some of Britain's greatest military disasters. Some lowlights:
    • Louis Mountbatten failed spectacularly in the Dieppe raid and had several other crazy plans but thanks to his close connection to the royal family he just kept getting promoted. However, he proved a capable diplomat, not least overseeing the independence of India from Britain, and at the same time helping to manage the extremely volatile India-Pakistan separation without touching off a war.
    • George Colley, commander of British forces in the First Boer War, was known as a brilliant man who (among other things) contributed regularly to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. This didn't stop him from getting his forces routed, and himself killed at Majuba Hill.
    • Subverted by Sir Garnett Wolseley, on which the character of General Stanley was deliberately modeled, both by W.S. Gilbert and the first actor to play the role, George Grossmith. At the time The Pirates of Penzance was written, Wolseley was one of Great Britain's most well-known military figures, with a reputation as an organizational "efficiency expert" that belied the fact that he was also an experienced and effective field commander, who also held combat commands after the operetta was produced. Wolseley was a leading advocate for army reform and wrote a number of seminal works on military history. According to The Other Wiki, he even took the roast in good humor and was known to sing the Major General Song to amuse his friends.
  • Two from the Union side of The American Civil War:
    • Ambrose Burnside considered himself one. He was a skilled at training soldiers but mediocre at best at leading them. He was also a skilled gunsmith, designing the Burnside carbine which was one of the first breech-loading firearms adopted by the US military. Burnside was very reluctant to be promoted to general, but accepted the position because otherwise it would have gone to Joseph Hooker, whom he considered even less suitable (and personally despised to boot).
    • Benjamin Butler was a brilliant lawyer and debater (for one, he coined the term "contraband" for slaves escaping to Union lines, providing a legal excuse for freeing them when slavery hadn't actually been abolished), but an incompetent commander once fighting started. However, his political influence protected him from a sacking until Lincoln's second term. In an improbable run of bad luck, the Union would continually transfer Butler to quiet sectors, only for that area to become suddenly important; whenever Butler was the highest ranking officer on the scene (which he usually was), disaster soon followed.
  • How about an ancient major general? The Roman emperor Gallienus, according to Gibbon: "was a master of several curious but useless sciences, a ready orator and an elegant poet, a skillful gardener, an excellent cook, and most contemptible prince. When the great emergencies of the State required his presence and attention, he was engaged in conversation with the philosopher Plotinus, wasting his time in trifling or licentious pleasures, preparing his initiation to the Grecian mysteries, or soliciting a place in the Areopagus of Athens" (Ch. X)
  • From Tsarist Russia, we have Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich. Nicholas steadily rose through the ranks of the Russian army and was renowned for being a Sergeant Rock who was a tough taskmaster but one respected by his troops. He also oversaw a successful reform of the training and education of the Russian cavalry. When the Tsar asked him to become a military dictator in response to the 1905 Revolution instead of accepting the reforms proposed by Sergius Witte, Nicholas threatened to shoot himself on the spot if the Tsar didn't accept the reforms. When World War One started, the Tsar made Nicholas the Russian army's commander in chief. Unfortunately, while Nicholas was great at training men, he didn't have much experience commanding them. He burst into tears when he received the Tsar's order making him commander in chief, having no idea how to handle his new duties. He proved to be an utter disaster as a commander, not helped by the Russian army's awful logistics and poor training. Nicholas was eventually dismissed in 1915 and replaced by the Tsar, whose even worse leadership was one of the factors in the Empire's final collapse.
  • Josef Stalin was a Hypercompetent Sidekick to Vladimir Lenin before and during Red October, proving to be The Chessmaster and briliant at politics and administration. Those skills helped him become the Dragon Ascendant after Lenin's death, and also helped him build the Soviet Union into a superpower. Unfortunately, while Stalin had many talents military strategy was not one of them. Whenever he tried to control a Bolshevik war effort, it usually went badly, ending at best in a Pyrrhic Victory. While he oversaw the Soviet Union's victory in World War II, it was because he actually let his generals do their jobs and handle military strategy.
  • William Hull distinguished himself in The American Revolution by joining his local militia, fighting in many significant battles and receiving multiple Rank Ups. His bravery and service earned him recognition from Congress and even George Washington himself. He also publicized Nathan Hale's remark that he regretted having only one life to lose for his country. After the war, he negotiated the Treaty of Detroit, acquiring new territory from the First Nations that became parts of Michigan and Ohio. Unfortunately, by the War of 1812, Hull was long past his prime. He initially refused a general position when offered one, and only took it after repeated pleas from President James Madison. He repeatedly argued with his militia commanders, who considered removing him from command, let several of his dispatches be captured by a First Nations force led by the warrior Tecumseh that promptly turned them over to the British General Isaac Brock, and was played for a sucker by Brock and Tecumseh when they tricked him into thinking that their force was much larger than it really was. That, combined with Hull's (unfounded) fear of The Savage Indians, tricked him into surrendering Fort Detroit despite his superior numbers. The fiasco led to an uproar in the United States, where Hull was court-martialed for cowardice and neglect of duty. He was sentenced to be shot, but President Madison commuted his sentence to dismissal from the army in recognition of his Revolutionary service.
  • A non-military example. Sir Isaac Newton was a world-historical genius who invented calculus and discovered gravity. But when it came to his actual day job running the Royal Mint, he screwed up so badly that England, which was meant to have a bi-metallic currency, accidentally ended up on the gold standard. He was also a terrible investor, famously quipping "I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men" after losing his fortune in the crash of the South Sea Bubble.