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This was an interesting perspective on leadership. I wonder if the findings hold true over time (forgive me if the answer is in the full research report - I didn't read it). The reality that few organizations have promotional ladders that make sense, in terms of skill needed that would have been developed on a lower rung, makes it feels as if people are doomed from the start.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of Stoics who believed individuals should stop when they reached their ‘peak of wisdom’ or the top of their field. Consider the athlete or singer who retires at their prime when they’re on top versus the athlete who no longer is a champion or the singer who becomes a has-been because they stayed in the profession too long.

There’s also the problem that people will naturally use strategies that worked well for them in their previous position, which resulted in the promotion, and take little time to focus on strengthening weak areas because it’s difficult and uncomfortable. People will do what they do best and that may not be such an asset in the new position.

The Peter Principle makes a case for people stopping when they’ve accomplished all they can at their corporation. The difficulty for the athlete, singer, corporate exec, is knowing when. It’s a crap shoot (I guess you’d be better off playing Craps).

Christian Fey

It is interesting that the random rule seems to produce better leaders. I would comment though, that the lack of a focused promotion would take employees who have potentially no leadership ambitions and "throw them to the fishes" as it were. This, in my experience, forces those individuals to take very special care so as to not screw everything up. To the contrary, by choosing employees who are looking to become promoted, many have hit what they see as a wall in their career and once promoted tend to see themselves as in a position where they can be a bit more cavalier due to their prior involvement in the organization. This would lead them to likely be less motivated to avoid mistakes and potentially even begin the new job lazily. I'm curious if this analysis holds or even has some bearing on the study put forth above, but it would be an interesting sideline.


Using the Peter Principle as justification for randomly promoting people seems to make the assumption that people will be incompetent in the role after the very first promotion. In reality it may take many promotions and associated competence at each level before reaching the level of incompetence defined by Peter. Throughout that time, presumably, the individual has been making demonstrable contribution to the organization.

Perhaps a person should only be promoted if they demonstrate the abilities necessary to be promoted to two levels. This would short-circuit the Peter Principle by keeping a person in a role of competence unless they could show competence at the next level.

Brandon Meek

Interesting topic and excellent analysis of the scenario. However, there are many assumptions built into this situation in regard to a parity of competence of the members within the group that a "leader" is chosen from, among other things.

I think this simulation speaks more to the topic of group/team psychology as it relates to responding to an authority figure more than anything else, which may be supported by the fact that teams in this simulation worked better when a "leader" was selected at random. There isn't any competition and each person's probably of being the leader of the group was the same. Therefore, there isn't any indication of worth between individuals, and all members are essentially still peers within the team.

While I agree that the Peter Principle exists, I think we have to be careful in making the leap from this article and the author's assessment to a point where we heavily discount the value and role of true leadership within an organization. The fact that you can interchange leaders that have the competence and requisite skills to be a leader doesn't indicate that any random individual can successfully be a leader.


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The researchers admit that they have suggested only one possible
explanation for these findings, and acknowledge that a random process of
selecting a leader i[span style="font-size: 11px;"]s probably inferior to a systematic process for groups that
do other tasks. But these findings are
intriguing because they force many of us – both practitioners and researchers
-- to see an old problem in a new way,
they spark the “vu ja de” mentality.

They suggest our [/span][span style="font-size: 11px;"]assumptions about how to select
a leader may, at least at times, be flawed.

Eddie Colbeth

Thanks for the thought provoking article! I've heard of the peter principle but didn't know what it was. I'm reading Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From and talks about the how adding noise/randomness to the system accelerates creativity. Perhaps there is an echo of that here?

Bill Bennett

The ancient Greeks in Athens elected leaders by random, literally drawing names written on shards of pottery out of a large urn.

A ruler would be in charge for a year. If they did a good job, the city gave them a farm, if they did a bad job, they were executed.

I wonder if modern companies would run better with a similar system?

Peter Evans-Greenwood

Now that's a great collection of references. I remember reading the Peter Principle article in New Scientist a couple of months ago.

This topic is one of those things we shouldn't find unusual, but we do. I expect it's because people have a lot of trouble distingushing between "necessary" and "sufficent".

In most companies, the particular CEO is sufficent for the company to succeed, but they are not necessary. We could swap in anyone with similar skills and have the same result. The same could be said for randomly picking a leader in a team: we need a leader, but there's nothing particularly special about the leader we need so we might as pick someone at random. It's like picking a nail from the box when you're putting up a picture.

The problem is that we all like to think that we're necessary: that we were invaluable in delivering the required outcome. The reality is otherwise. (Arguments about Steve Jobs aside.)

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