My favourite concept in management theory is called the ‘Peter principle’. Named after its author, a bloke called Laurence J. Peter, it articulates a common feeling in the workplace: “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”
Ha! Rising to the level of their incompetence. How wonderfully amusing, dark, insightful, cathartic, and terrifying.
You know this story, right? The annual reviews tick around and a hard-working employee is rewarded for a job well done. Along comes the pay rise and more responsibilities – they’re inseparable.
Well, Mr Peter discovered that’s not always the best decision a leader can make. Your erstwhile colleague’s past performance shouldn’t be the only reason why they’re given a new role with greater responsibility.
Without the right training, or abilities, power goes to their head, poor decisions are made, or people struggle to follow the freshly empowered leader.
It’s a tough scenario because we’ve all been there. That’s the “terrifying” aspect I referenced earlier. Obviously the normal way to “get ahead” on the corporate ladder is by demonstrating you’ve got leadership and management potential.
The game we play is called ‘Managing Up’. We convince our boss we’ve got the ability to think and act like them and, if all goes well, the promotion is ours.
This linear thinking is insidious. We want to know how to be a leader, a manager, a better person. Faced with a new opportunity or stretch goal, we work hard to overcome our secret perceived incompetence before it’s no longer secret.
Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the list of Inc. Magazine’s Top 10 business books of 2015: Stand Out, Team Genius, Team of Teams, Serial Winner, You Win in the Locker Room First, People Over Profit, Corporate Awesome Sauce, Do Over, Work Rules!, and Steal The Show.
The trouble is nine out of 10 books are focused on the incompetence dynamic – different variations of “how to be a better leader” and “how to do a better job at work”.
The only book that’s different. People Over Profit, by Dale Partridge, is described by Inc. as: “A manifesto and action plan for companies to remain socially responsible not because it's the right thing to do but because it's the only way to survive.”
The subject matter sounds inspiring. But the keyword in this description is manifesto - the author’s attempt at articulating a higher calling.
Partridge appears to have looked past the obvious obsession with “how” and gone for something far more inspiring. Why are you a leader in the first place? What’s your purpose? If you don’t have one he’s about to give you one: a mission to transform profit-obsessed corporations. It’s the principle that matters here.
This point was driven home by Michael Jr., one of my favourite comedians. He told the story of a segment in his act called “break time” where he chats with the audience. Upon meeting a school music teacher, Michael Jr. invites the man to sing Amazing Grace. What followed was an understated, deep-register vocal rendition.
Sensing an opportunity to unlock something amazing, Michael Jr. then asks the man, of African-American descent, to sing the “’hood version”. Out of nowhere came an entirely different performance. The man picks it up a notch or three, jumps to a high register, and his vocals soared all over the place like a black gospel singer. Powerful stuff.
The punchline here are words that apply equally to life as they do leadership and team building.
“The first time I asked him to sing, he knew what he was doing. The second time I asked him to sing, he knew why he was doing it,” Michael Jr. said. “When you know your why, your what has more impact, because you’re walking in, or towards your purpose.”
It follows that the antidote for the Peter principle is not more books about how to be a great leader, but why you’re a leader at all. Get that right and the rest will follow.