It is Sunday morning. After 5 PM on Friday, Sunday morning is my favorite day and favorite time of the week. It is a quiet period for reflection and regeneration – of ideas, values, and beliefs.
My Sunday morning routine begins with the morning newspapers. I gradually move to all types of other readings before heading out into the city to pursue the more mundane responsibilities. I typically start early. Today it was 5:30 AM. With a cup of steaming black coffee in hand, I began my weekly journey.
In and amongst the newspaper and blog columns that were, yet again, harping about the hypocrisy of the radical right or the out-of-touch left, I found an interesting article from the April 2 edition of Business Week entitled The Peter Principle Lives. It was penned by Robert I Sutton, a Stanford professor of management science and engineering, who wrote the forward to the 40th anniversary edition of the book, “The Peter Principle,” the seminal work written by former teacher Dr. Laurence J. Peter and playwright Raymond Hull. Their premise was, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his (or her) level of incompetence.”
The late Dr. Peter argued that we ask for more and more until we ask for too much, Mr. Sutton writes. “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.”
One paragraph stood out as if highlighted by a high-powered strobe light:
“If Dr. Peter were alive today, he’d find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence…Perform extraordinary feats or consider yourself a loser.
“We are now trying to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking. Many of us didn’t want to see the lies, exaggerations, and arrogance that pumped up our (financial) portfolios. Instead we showered huge financial rewards on those who fed our delusion,” Mr. Sutton wrote.
Is there a cure for this malady, Sutton asks? Yes, of course. “Return to what Dr. Peter envisioned when he co-authored the book: rewarding extraordinary competence and being wary of feats that come too easily.” He believes that Ray Kroc is the right role model for our society today.
“One of his first steps in building the McDonald’s empire was to run his own outlet – he cooked, he cleaned bathrooms, picked up the trash. The focus on doing the ordinary things well was key to McDonald’s success.”
Then there was Captain Chesley Sullenberger, III, who commanded U.S. Airways Flight 1549 who successfully ditched his crippled Airbus 320 in the Hudson River on a cold day in January. Capt. Sullenberger’s comments speak to the essence of competence:
“I know I speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do.”
Mr. Sutton concludes, “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.”
John G. Self is Chairman and Senior Client Advisor of JohnMarch Partners. He is a Co-Founder of the Firm. A former investigative reporter and crime writer with more than 30-years of healthcare leadership experience in public relations, national marketing, business development and as Chief Executive Officer of hospitals and consulting firms, Mr. Self is highly regarded for his keen insight into operations, business culture and for his ability to consistently select the right leaders.