Leadership Credibility and the Peter Principle
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Leadership Credibility and the Peter Principle

Remember the Peter Principle? It says that in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence. What that often means is that we promote people because they’re good at Skill X, but in their new position they need Skill X plus Skill Y to get the job done. Problem is, they don’t have Skill Y and they end up failing in the job.

This is not, of course, inevitable. Some leaders figure out how to develop Skill Y and become effective in their new role. But the most successful leaders often take another path: They hire other people who master Skill Y.

The key insight here is that great leaders know they don’t have to be good at everything. Most great leaders are good at one thing – sales, accounting, engineering, writing, whatever – that gives them credibility. But they get results by building and leading a highly skilled team. Ineffective leaders think they need to do it all. Which is a recipe for mediocrity.

Have you heard the term “managing upward”? (I usually call it “boss management.”) I admit with some embarrassment that I’ve done it myself when I’ve had a weak boss. But my best bosses wouldn’t let me get away with it. And I hate it when people do it to me. Managing upward happens when people get promoted, reach their level of incompetency, and at some point realize they have to cover up the fact that they’re failing. So they withhold information from the boss, create distractions … whatever it takes to prevent the boss from seeing the truth.

What a waste of energy. If you’re a leader and find yourself lacking a core skill, it’s much healthier to simply say, “Okay, I’m not good at this, but since my job as a leader is to get results through other people, I’ll succeed by finding – and leading – someone else who has mastered this core skill.”

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