The Peter Principle

The article we published earlier, ‘Don’t Promote Mediocrity‘ on the Army’s promotion system reminded me that in a hierarchy like the US military, personnel are promoted so long as they display competence.

If you’ve known me a long time, then you’ve heard me refer to ‘The Peter Principle.” Simply put, it’s the idea that everyone will be promoted to their own level of incompetence. Often, I’ll refer to someone reaching their Peter Point, which is level at which they are no longer effective. Generally speaking, a fellow might be a great Maj but then, they promote him to Lt Col and give him a command or a staff element and he is just soup sandwich. This is the level at which he becomes incompetent. We see it in all facets of society. For example, business, politics, and the military.

Interestingly, the German Army, long our foes, had a standing tradition to promote their best and brightest to serve on the General Staff. It was held that it didn’t take a lot to command a unit but that the devil is in the details. To this end, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, a German Army leader in World War II, is credited with saying, “There are only four types of officer. First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm. . . . Second, there are the hard-working, intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered. Third, there are the hard-working, stupid ones. These people are a menace and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody. Finally, there are the intelligent, lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office.”

The American military on the other hand, puts its best and brightest in command positions and as there are few of those positions many an officer ends up as a staff officer.

I have long held that the most dangerous threat to the US military is the wrong guy in the wrong staff position. You can have the biggest rock star commander making decisions, but those decisions are based on courses of action presented by a staff officer. No matter what, the decisions made by a commander are tainted by the information he is presented by his staff. Consequently, the staff wields a great deal of power. Based on the American military promotion system, the folks who are gathering the information a commander needs to make good decisions, are, oftentimes, those that they don’t want to put in charge.

Granted, there are limited command positions available, and, not everyone who ends up on a staff is poor performer but take a look around your organization. You’ll find those that have met their Peter Point and you may see their subordinates ‘managing upward’ in order to mitigate the damage they can do.

Disruptive thinkers, weigh that when considering where to inject your ideas. Get buy in at the lowest levels possible because the staff will carry your water for you if they think your concept has merit.

Consider this line from the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s play ‘Minna von Barnhelm’ publiched in 1767 – “Mehr als Wachtmeister zu werden? Daran denke ich nicht. Ich bin ein guter Wachtmeister und dürfte leicht ein schlechter Rittmeister und sicherlich noch ein schlechtrer General werden. Die Erfahrung hat man.” Or, in English, “To become more than a sergeant? I don’t consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly an even worse general. People have had this experience.”

The point here is that perhaps the notion of the ‘Career Corporal’ or ‘Career Captain’ might be good for the military rather than the up or out policies adopted post-WW II.

8 Responses to “The Peter Principle”

  1. steve says:

    good shit

  2. John Denny says:

    Exactly my sentiments since my experience. I’ve never wanted the leadership role, even tho it’s been pushed on me many times. I much prefer, and excell, at being the guy doing, supporting and advising.

  3. Mark says:

    For some reason I’ve seen several variations of this today, and I think there’s a misstatement going on in the summary that the “best and brightest” go to the General Staff.

    Actually, both from this discussion and others I’ve seen, the energetic bright go to the General Staff – and usually stay there (groomed for higher STAFF positions).

    Commanders come from the other “bright” pool; the bright and lazy, and progress on the command side.

    Am I reading history correctly? Either way, is a system that demands success both as a staff officer and commander the best choice?

  4. Kevin says:

    Yeah. I was a really good company FSO, battery XO and BN FSO, I was not a very good battery CO.

  5. awset7 says:

    Absolutely!! I wasn’t around for the SPEC system in the Army. But it sounds like a great idea that we should entertain bringing back. I got joes that damn sure aren’t NCO material but they are damn good specialists.

    • John Denny says:

      Exactly, the Spec ranks, or back in the old WWII days Tech ranks,
      worked well for keeping good people in, that wouldn’t have been good NCOs, or didn[t want to go into the leadership ranks. This especially is true for the MOSs that need qualified, experienced people.

      • Riceball says:

        The Marine Corps still practices this to a degree, although just not at the junior enlisted level. If an enlisted Marine manages to stay in and make it pass Gunny their career path splits and he/she then has a choice to either become a Master Sgt. then Master Gunnery Sgt. and become something of a specialist in their MOS or become a 1st Sgt. and then Sgt. Major and move into a command billet. Of course the reality is bit more muddier than this since a Master Sgt. can easily fill a 1st Sgt’s billet since they’re both E-8s, but at least (in theory) the Corps recognizes that not everybody is interested or suited for leadership positions.

        Also like the Army the Marine Corps also has Warrant Officer but instead of using mostly as helo pilots, Marine Warrants are almost exclusively former senior enlisted and act as MOS specialists and don’t usually run anything larger than a shop. Not entirely sure what the benefits of becoming a Warrant is except maybe for those old crusty Gunnies whose COs try to push to going to OCS but don’t like the idea of becoming a “Butter Bar” and opt instead for the Warrant program where they get the salutes but none of the BS and a better rep.