Don't be an Example of the Peter Principle

Jim Morgan's picture

A recent article about America’s generals shows that Laurence Peter nailed a universal truth back in 1969: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” What some call “The Peter Principle,” after the title of the book it appeared in, has been true in every company I have worked with. Unless you are a CEO, there probably is nothing you can do to prevent it except this: Don’t be an example.

The article in The Atlantic by Thomas Ricks, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning war reporter, opens with a story of the U.S. 90th Infantry Division during the Battle of Normandy in World War II. When its commander, Brigadier General Jay MacKelvie, was found “sheltering from enemy fire, huddled in a drainage ditch along the base of a hedgerow” while his division “bogged down,” he was replaced the same day. So were two of his three regimental commanders, including a West Point graduate only in command a month. A few weeks later, the man who replaced MacKelvie was replaced. During the four years of that war, 10% of the 155 division commanders were removed, plus five (higher-up) corps commanders.

“In the (U.S.) wars of the past decade,” Ricks writes in contrast, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and… not one was relieved by the military brass for combat effectiveness.” In Iraq, only one high-ranking officer was removed, a colonel.

The article goes on to detail the host of major military mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan. (I’m ignoring debates over political mistakes.) Ricks provides examples where Gen. Tommy Franks refused to provide resources that could have captured Osama bin Laden in 2001 or prevented the escape of a large al-Qaeda/Taliban force. He shows how Franks and later commanders focused on immediate goals over long-term success. Read Dwight Eisenhower’s memoir of WWII, and you’ll see he was well aware how his decisions could impact the difficult rebuilding of Europe. Ricks says separate reviews by the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation showed military leaders thought the post-war transition in Iraq would be easy.

One line from the article leapt from the page: “During World War II, top officials expected some generals to fail in combat, and were prepared to remove them when they did.” The Peter Principle argues that once someone starts moving up, they will keep being promoted until they land in a position where they are over their head. Their performance is too poor to be overlooked, so they don’t get promoted further, but they don’t get demoted either. That may be because the people above them have risen to their levels of incompetence.

I was in a start-up years ago that had grown to 250 people and supplied a key part to a massively successful product. Five years old, the company had no group-level budgets and used no project management despite consistently failing to deliver on its promises. Finally the company imploded in layoffs and limped along until it was sold to another company. The founders made some money, but they could have made so much more with far less pain to many people. The CEO was an outstanding money raiser, but he was clueless as an administrator. Without changing jobs he had risen to his level of incompetence because the needs of the job had changed. But he and the board of directors refused to see it.

Elsewhere, the head of the Project Management Office at the most chaotic business I’ve ever been in told me she did not feel qualified for her mid-manager position. Over time it became clear she was right. But there was nothing preventing her from becoming qualified. The mistakes she repeated had nothing to do with project management. They involved people management skills, which can be learned. She, her boss, and the company had missed the most fundamental truth about management: When you become a manager, your job is no longer technical; your job is helping other people succeed. The classic example is that of the top salesperson who gets promoted to leadership of the sales organization, only to see sales go down. The company does not teach him or her how to manage, and it just “lost” its top sales person!

There is little you can do about the Peter Principle in your company, unless you are in a high-level position (at which you are competent). But you can stop yourself from being a model of it. One reason I have resisted the normal corporate career route is fear that I would eventually reach that level. I know I am good at transforming teams, and when I do that well, those teams no longer need me. So even though I am good at coaching other team leaders to do that and thus could probably rise a level or two without problems, I instead have organized my career to move sideways to other teams that need what I am definitely good at.

If you choose the traditional upward route, there are steps you can take to prevent creeping incompetence:

  • Focus your self-training on people and administrative skills instead of technical ones.
  • Put what is best for your employees over short-term personal career gains, because their success will reflect well on you.
  • Think carefully about the possible negative consequences of each decision, not just the positives.
  • As you move up, remember that you cannot possibly control the daily efforts of 20 or 200 line employees. You really only manage the people who directly report to you—your team, in other words, not their teams.

I’d love to hear how you stop yourself from falling to the Peter Principle. But I believe there is a simple rule. Either succeed by moving from mountain to mountain, or never forget that the mountain below you is what provides your high-altitude view.

Sources:

  • Peter, L., and R. Hull (1969). The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. William Morrow: New York.
  • Ricks, T. (2012), “General Failure,” The Atlantic 310(4):98.