Apr 22, 2009

The Peter Principle Lives :o)

All right folks, get your minds out of the gutter :o)

Now 40, The Peter Principle resonates even more today, when a lust for accomplishment has led an unprecedented level 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. How many times have we seen folks in positions of power, who we used to work with/for, and say "How did they get so out of touch, we used to joke about executives [guys] like him?"

In our current environment of failed financial institutions, exorbitant salaries, rising health care costs, rising unemployment, lowered housing equity, rising governmental deficits, and especially after the last ten years of looking the other way, how can we stomach the current pundits that we hear on TV, read in papers, and flit through on the web?

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.

Simple competence was central, too, for former U.S. Marine Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, who led a platoon in bloody street battles in Iraq. As Campbell's account, Joker One, tells us, he earned his men's respect and protected them through simple acts: training them to get in and out of a Humvee quickly, reminding them to eat, and arguing with superiors when those under his command were unnecessarily put in harm's way.

Finally, consider how Captain Chesley Sullenberger III explained his astounding emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York's Hudson River in January. "I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do," he said. As Dr. Peter might have observed, there were no pretenders, blowhards, or shared delusions that day, just the deftly coordinated actions of people who had not reached their level of incompetence.

After the recent Navy Seals excellent demonstration of protecting one of our own, and the sacrifices our military has silently made over the last seven years, I say, look to our true role models, the military, our parents, our teachers, our quiet engineers and medical workers, and return to the roots of what has made our country what it is today.


  1. When the Hudson River landing happened, I remember talking to Dad about it and saying how great it was to see a group of people understand what their jobs were and to do those jobs so well. I think we've all become so used to incompetence that those who are competent now are on the verge of hero status! Time to raise the bar again and make competence the norm rather than the exception.


  2. Hi Ken,
    I think the world needs an updated version of the Peter Principle. Things have only gotten worse with the economy ... with all these Unprincipled Peters doing their utmost to survive while the average Joe ends up out on the street.

  3. I had never heard of The Peter Principle, but now I want to read it. This was a very interesting and well-written entry. Thank you!

  4. But I like my mind in the gutter (pouts)...

    In any case this was interesting. I never heard about the Peter Principle before this and I can't help it every time I read those words I end up snickering like a little school girl. (Hugs)Indigo

  5. Never heard of this before but after spending over a month in medical/hospital hell I now know the full meaning of the word incompetence. I am amazed anyone lives through anything!!!

    I am going to read this book and suggest it to a few people I've gotten to know...think they'll get my drift? Thanks for the heads up Ken.

  6. I could have prolly written a better entry in my own blog, had I read this before hand. There is a terrible lack of substance, as the things that create 'substance' like compentency, is being subsitituted for appearance and other superficial things, to validate whether or not someone 'fits' a role or position.

    The thing about the Hudson River landing, is that Capt. Sullenberger didn't force his modesty, but calmly restated how he felt he was just doing his job. Same I am sure, with the Navy SEALS. Well trained professionals that did the job they signed up to do.


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