What is the Peter Principle?

What is the Peter Principle?

Many leaders today often rise to their positions due to their competence as individual contributors. This transition can often produce troubling results. What is the Peter Principle? Can it be prevented with superhero efforts?

A Formula for High Achievement

AchievementI stepped into my leadership role primarily due to my technical abilities. I had become pretty good at identifying problems and finding solutions through software. Naively, I believed that my rapid technical progression had prepared me for my new leadership role.

Prior to stepping into a leadership role, I stumbled into a formula for high achievement. I had inadvertently created a feedback loop.  My problem-solving passion fed the people-pleasing reward mechanism of my personality. The combination proved to be a powerful force. It was a continual loop of solving problems and then receiving gratitude for making life easier for others.

While the problems we solved weren’t always trivial, there was at least some structure. Accounting software leveraged financial formulas. Streaming video utilized documented standards. Even spacecraft flight operated within the laws of physics. No matter how complex the problem, we almost always had defined paths to implement solutions.

The Problem with Leading PeopleFace Palm

The loop I just described works well for individual contributors. I naively assumed my problem-solving abilities would also translate to my leadership. If I can learn complex financial formulas or laws of physics, I can certainly master “Laws of Leadership”.

Seasoned leaders know the absurdity of my last statement. Yes, many leadership concepts can be mastered. However, leading people will rarely be simplified down to a repeatable formula. Developing as a leader takes time. What worked yesterday may not work today. What motivated one person infuriated another. The dynamics of leading people is an ever-changing challenge.

In a matter of months, I went from a confident, high-achieving individual contributor to, at best, a mediocre leader. My transition to leadership severed my feedback loop. My daily activities no longer provided a continuous stream of rewarding feedback from others.

What is the Peter Principle?

I had noble intentions, but initially those I led rarely appreciated my efforts to push them to peak performance. Rather than our team’s performance improving under my leadership, it began to take a dip. Our customers that were once raving fans became frustrated. My boss who once wrote my glowing reviews became increasingly concerned with my abilities.

Once brimming with confidence, I found myself overwhelmed with discouragement and insecurity.

I had become an example of the Peter Principle:

The principle that members of a hierarchy are promoted until they reach the level at which they are no longer competent.” – Oxford Dictionary

Dr. Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull originally present the Peter Principle in their 1969 satire classic. While intended as satire, it is an eerily accurate description of the progression occurring in many organizations. It was a reality I was living firsthand.

Aware of the Peter Principle, I refused to accept the slide from competence to incompetence. I refused to become a statistic.

To the Trenches

TrenchesI was going to be an “in the trenches” leader. My technical skills would remain sharp. I wouldn’t ask my team to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. Seems noble, right?

When I stepped back into the trenches, my team initially appreciated the extra help on the projects. With the extra help, we were back on track with our schedules. Our customers were once again fans of our work. The best part of this new approach, my feedback loop was back.

It seemed like we had an effective system. Yes, I had a leadership title, but I could still work in technical areas that were rewarding.

“Saved” by Superhero Effort

While the system seemed effective, it began to lead me down a deceptive path. When presented with new technical challenges, I would jump in the middle of creating solutions. When a customer distress signal went up, I would spring into action and resolve the issue.

Over time, I began spending less and less time on developing those I led. I spent less time on tough conversations with those struggling in the team. Rather than addressing issues in the team, I took on more and more work myself to avoid friction.

Eventually, my team confronted me. They asked, “why is it you always jump on the projects requested by our executives? Why don’t you assign these high-profile projects to others?”

Ouch. Unknowingly, I had moved from the Peter Principle to what Mike Michalowicz calls “Superhero Syndrome”.

In a recent interview with Jon Acuff, Mike explains the problem with superheroes:

I see myself as so special, I can swoop in, and fix any problem in my business. The customer is upset, I’ve got this taken care of because superhero Mike is here. Superheroes in movies leave a wake of destruction behind and they disable and disarm the law enforcement or the task force that is supposed to deal with that crime. Batman – Every time the commissioner would pick up the phone and say Batman we’re in trouble again, save us. Every time Batman saved the day they became less capable. I’m deflating the abilities of my team.

The Antidote to the Peter Principle and Superhero Syndrome

AntidoteThere are many situations where “in the trenches” leadership can be an effective way to lead. However, we must be aware that using this approach to avoid the Peter Principle comes with risk. It’s easy for this approach to deceive us into taking a path toward superheroism.

The antidote for both the Peter Principle and Superhero Syndrome has two components.

  1. We must first be willing to identify the why behind our leadership. Did we take on a leadership role because we felt it was the only way to advance in our careers? Do we truly enjoy the role of bringing individuals together to accomplish something larger than ourselves? Do we truly enjoy putting our own needs aside for a season to let others take center stage? If we struggle to answer any of these questions, the best antidote might be stepping out of our current role. It might be time to explore other directions, at least for a season.
  2. The next component of the antidote involves creating a filter to evaluate your daily work. Are our actions causing those around us to grow? Are our actions helping those we lead to become more effective? Or are our actions feeding our own superhero ego?

We combat the tendency toward the Peter Principle and Superhero Syndrome when our actions and motives focus on the value added to those we lead. The feedback loop will likely not be as immediate as we saw as individual contributors. However, the reward of seeing others grow into their full potential is well worth the wait.


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