[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.