This is an excellent article and gets at one of the downfalls of the current up or out promotion system (careerism is the other manifestation). The evolving face of war has made the profession of arms so complex, that being a sergeant, lieutenant or captain is very tough today because their actions can have strategic implications. But today’s military, particularly the Army and Marines, are still driven by a personnel system that has its roots in the Progressive era. For my recommendations see www.d-n-i.net under people, or one of four books I have edited or written. I contend it is even worse today in the age of political correctness enforcement NAZIs, lawyers on every street corner looking for a way to justify their lifestyles, all decreasing the numbers of true leaders, with the strength of character to make the calls on their subordinates.
‘The Peter Principle’ is ageless as it turns 40
Resonates more today in our unprecedented age of incompetence
“The Peter Principle,” about to be reissued in a 40th anniversary edition, was a best seller when it was first published. A satiric treatise on workplace incompetence, it touched a nerve with readers because it was so funny. And so true. Much like the film “Office Space,” NBC’s “The Office,” and Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” comic strips, this book by Laurence J. Peter (a former teacher) and Raymond Hull (a playwright) captured the twisted logic of workplaces — tapping into how ridiculous they feel to insiders. It gleefully emitted a cloud of jargon monoxide and absurd advice as it reached its famous main conclusion: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”
The Peter Principle made us laugh, but it also made us aware of the importance of simple competence — and of how elusive it could be. When people do their jobs well, Dr. Peter argued, society can’t leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals — promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail — start using a bag of tricks to mask their incompetence. They distract us from their crummy work with giant desks, replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, cheat to create the illusion of progress.
If Dr. Peter were alive today, he’d find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats, or consider yourself a loser.
We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking. Many of us didn’t want to see the lies, exaggerations, and arrogance that pumped up our portfolios. Instead we showered huge rewards on the false financial heroes who fed our delusions. This is the Bernie Madoff story, too. People may have suspected that something wasn’t quite right about the huge returns on their investments with Madoff. But few wanted to look closely enough to see the Ponzi scheme.
Nor did anyone care to see the limits of professional athletes. Baseball’s Barry Bonds was a great player, but excellence wasn’t enough for the San Francisco Giants’ management, himself, or deluded fans like me. During those alleged steroid years, Bonds sure looked juiced: His head resembled a balloon. My reaction? Like most Giants fans, I joked about the meds — and loved it when he blasted those homers.
The cure for our malady? We should return to what Dr. Peter wanted: rewarding ordinary competence and being wary of feats that come too easily. Perhaps the late Ray Kroc is the right role model here. One of his first steps in building the McDonald’s empire was to run his own outlet — he cooked, cleaned bathrooms, picked up the trash. The focus on doing ordinary things well was, he believed, key to McDonald’s success