The Peter Principle: Is it Real?

By | August 17, 2018

[August 17, 2018]  Not only is the answer, YES it does exist, but we keep getting punished by it every day.  There are many anecdotal examples of the Peter Principle in action but I’ll hold off on them today.  Let’s just note that organizations are complex and the idea that some leaders are better than others will always be true.

How could it be that within any organization leaders are first advanced to their highest level of competence and then promoted to and remain at their level of incompetence?  First, this is not entirely true but it is the basis of management theory developed by Laurence J. Peter.  As noted by Mr. Peter, there are those who have yet promoted too much.

“Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” – Laurence J. Peter, Canadian educator and “hierarchiologist”

Second, the idea that leaders are promoted to their level of incompetence and then tend to stay there is part of a rather simple model.  But there is truth to this and it comes in two parts.  Many leaders do not live up to their new positions and for a variety of reasons.  Also, it is a feature of bureaucracies that there is resistance to terminating the employment of or demoting people.

Leadership is complex and difficult.  Thus, it can be expected that leaders will make mistakes regardless of their level.  The higher they are in the organization the greater the impact of their errors on those who work there and on the mission.  See, for example, a list of ten common leadership mistakes that I posted earlier this year.1

I had a friend of mine who laughed at this list of mistakes, not because he didn’t believe them but because they reminded him of when he made those same errors.  On the job training (OJT) is what he called it and while it’s a common method of training leaders, it lends itself to more mistakes than is really necessary.

Yet for senior positions, OJT is really the only way to train.  There is no classroom for the most senior levels, past performance can only identify “potential,” and teaching, coaching, and mentoring can only do so much.  Senior leaders are prone to fall into the trap of doing what they did when they were more junior as their strategy to success.  However, that is not always an effective method.

Just remember that there are no shortcuts to leadership.  It is difficult, involves many talents and skills, the outcome is often uncertain, and the Peter Principle does hold us back.2  And, leadership doesn’t come naturally.


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “The Peter Principle: Is it Real?

  1. Delf A. "Jelly"

    I think that nearly everyone, once they reach the age of about 40, has experienced a boss or colleague who has reached their level of “incompetence.” The experience is not a pleasant one. I’m writing today to let everyone know that I personally had to bring the bad news to many otherwise good case officers that their service to the country is no longer needed. The reason? They couldn’t anymore be trusted because of their behavior based on the fact that they could not perform at their new level. Sad. But true. Lesson; read this article carefully.

  2. Tracey Brockman

    Thanks Gen. Satterfield for another good article. Educational, entertaining, and making me think. After a long week that is a challenge you’ve overcome.

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      Thanks Tracey and for everyone who chimed in on the Peter Principle model. There is a lot we can learn from the writings of Lawrence Peter and others who have studied and validated it.

  3. Max Foster

    There has been lots of analysis put into the concept of the Peter Princ. and much of it worth reading for the common man and woman. We all should study it and learn more of its details because that is where its explanatory power is located. Don’t go just by the name or what you’ve heard on the Internet but really take a close look at it. The info will make you really think and give less criticism of it.

    1. Max Foster

      It truly is good work on behalf of Lawrence Peter.

  4. Darryl Sitterly

    Nice Friday morning blog post for us aficionados at

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Good one, Darryl. I read this blog every day regardless of who is writing. I have a number of favorites like Sadako Red and Mr. Kennedy.

  5. Jerome Smith

    The PP is now out of vogue with economists. I always appreciated models like this one that helped explain reality but I also know that it is not reality, just a tool.

  6. Dennis Mathes

    The pressure on leaders as they move up in their organization increases dramatically at the top. It is no surprise to me or anyone that the failure rate of those “executives” is high. From personal failures like use of illegal drugs to failure to accomplish the mission, we can see that they lack something and that is the focus.

    1. Mike Baker

      They lack more than focus. Maybe there is a defect in their character. They don’t have the relevant experience or ethical values to make it.

  7. Shawn C. Stolarz

    Good info on the Peter Principle and thanks for making it a little more interesting than the typical stuff where I read about it.

    1. Jerry C. Jones

      Read it. Very good and highly recommended.

  8. Doug Smith

    Much has been written about the ‘Peter Principle’ and it is a nice, neat theory that has a lot going for it. Many believe in it, as I do. It helps explain much about bureaucracies and the attitude of senior leaders. Thanks for a good post today.

    1. Drew Dill

      I must agree wholeheartedly. It is real and helps explain much. I recommend everyone read more about it.

    2. José Luis Rodriguez

      Thanks for your service, Army Captain.

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