“Someday when I am incompetent…”: Reflections on the Peter Principle, Leadership, and Emotional Intelligence

“Shadow Steps” photo by Flickr user elycefeliz (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


A few years ago I learned of the “Peter Principle”: the concept that in hierarchical organizations, whether public or private, individuals are promoted up to their level of incompetence, and there they remain (Peter and Hull 16). In their book of the same name, the authors observe with satirical accuracy that, regardless of career field, high-performing individuals are continuously promoted over time until they reach the point at which the challenges of their new position exceed their skills, thereby decreasing their performance, eliminating the possibility of future promotions, and reducing the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. In short, most people advance in their careers until are promoted to a level at which they cease to achieve. Peter and Hull attribute this phenomenon to the fact that promotions are generally based upon performance in the old position, while each higher-level position requires new and different skills. Strong job performance as a staff member is not a predictor of strong performance as a manager.

It’s an appalling theory, and no less disturbing because it rings true. We’ve all seen it in action. For instance, a reference or cataloging librarian may suddenly be promoted to head of their department because they performed well as a librarian; but as a department head they now need a whole new array of skills to be successful, such as effective communication, strategic planning, and people management skills. Instead of being promoted to their new role because they displayed the requisite skills to perform well as a department head (or the potential to develop them), they have been plunged into an entirely new situation without much, if any, preparation. Perhaps they are lucky enough to already possess the aptitude for their new work and savvy enough to obtain whatever training they may need; in this case they have not yet reached their level of incompetence. But it is just as likely that they will muddle through, keeping the metaphorical lights on, but never achieving much or inspiring others.

In exploring strategies for combating such a seemingly inevitable process, the answer is both the simplest and most challenging one possible: by recognizing and respecting our own professional boundaries. This sounds easy but is complicated by certain external factors that drive people to accept promotions, such as financial pressures, retirement concerns, and the appeal of a role with greater power to (ideally) effect positive changes in the workplace. The effects of the former two are obvious. With an eye on the mortgage payment or retirement account, individuals who know a promotion isn’t right for them may just take the position anyway. And who could blame them? There are bills to pay, children to send to college, and the security of the future to consider. Regardless of our aptitude for a new position it would be difficult to turn down any opportunity to ease our financial burdens. Obviously compensation models in any organization are deeply entrenched, but why do we all accept that the positions that involve the most administrative tasks should be the highest paid? Why not consider a model based upon actual job performance regardless of role, that would actually encourage everyone to excel in the jobs we are best at? These are tricky questions, considering that administrators are often paid more because they are the most experienced (in years) and the most difficult to replace, but a high-performing administrator would still be paid well in a performance-based compensation model–along with high-performing staff at all levels within the organization.

If we consider the latter factor that influences many of us in deciding whether to accept a promotion, the waters become a bit muddier. Of course it is appealing to have greater power over one’s work and, potentially, over the work of others. But with such a motivator at hand, some may accept roles that they are not prepared to fulfill effectively. Telling people what to do sounds easy enough, but true leadership is far more challenging. Despite traditional concepts of management as a top-down activity, an increasing amount of scholarship points to the greater effectiveness of collaborative, bottom-up leadership based upon the cultivation of emotional intelligence (Goleman 1995, 1998) and humility (Owens & Heckman 2012). Decisionmaking through consensus, as discussed in last January’s Lead Pipe article by Emily Ford, may play a substantial role in this. Owens & Heckman’s research in particular indicates “that to effectively lead their firms amidst growing market complexity, leaders increasingly must be able to humbly show their followers how to grow by admitting what they do not know, modeling teachability, and acknowledging the unique skills, knowledge, and contributions of those around them” (811-812). This is a far cry—and happily!—from the “what I say goes” management strategies of old.

When it comes to our ability to recognize when our skills and abilities match our job and when they don’t, emotional intelligence (which will be explored in more depth below) can play a critical role. Are we making decisions about our work and the work of others for the right reasons? Goleman notes, “it is not that we want to do away with emotion and put reason in its place, as Erasmus had it, but instead find the intelligent balance of the two” (29). Those who are able to gracefully recognize and combine such factors may have the potential to overcome the fate to which Peter would say they are otherwise destined.

Leadership is a Dirty Word

Rhetorically speaking, the term “leadership” is inherently problematic. It implies that one or a few individuals “in the lead” possess the power and can take all the credit for an organization’s accomplishments. It limits our discussions about organizational effectiveness by implying that a powerful few are the ones who “make” an organization effective. Overly emphasizing one person’s importance is a disservice to that organization and all who function within it. It’s time to update our terminology. In The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadership, Wilfred Drath asserts, “Leadership will be understood not as a possession of the leader but as an aspect of the community (the team, group, organization, association, nature, culture). Leadership will be framed as a communal capacity and a communal achievement” (xvi).

Over the years, some organizations have adopted “upside-down” organizational charts, which generally flip the display of employees and place the customer or patron at the top, with each layer of staff, from frontlines employees to the company’s executive positions, displayed below. For many organizations, it would look something like this:

Image credit: Glenn Coles, http://www.glenn4mayor.com/infrastructure.html

While this type of organizational chart certainly could function as a marketing strategy to reassure customers of their importance, a company that fully embraces this reverse hierarchy is making other statements as well. A traditional organizational chart is defined by lines of supervision and power: a manager is a salesperson’s boss, therefore the manager is displayed above the salesperson. This ties into the ongoing, traditional ways that salary and job titles have been assigned. But when this is flipped and an organizational culture reinforces a flipped hierarchy, there is one critically important difference: rather than defining levels by power, this chart defines levels by support. Executives support the work of managers, who in turn support the work of frontlines staff, and so on. Better yet, de-emphasizing the supremacy of managers and executives may support more flexibility in the workplace that may, in turn, allow those who have risen to their level of incompetence to find a way out through a shift in position.

In the process of flipping the organizational chart, another truth comes to the forefront: managers don’t have staff. If anything, the staff has the manager! Such shifts in rhetoric, while seemingly simple or even nitpicky, can have a profound impact on the psyche of an organization. Each employee, regardless of their relative position in a traditional hierarchy, is considered one element in a collaborative team. Reinforcing the hierarchy through possessive rhetoric, such as language that implies that a manager “owns” a staff, can diminish a team’s collaborative environment. This type of language not only inflates the manager’s role in guiding and supporting the team, but reduces the visibility of those employees’ knowledge, skills, and self-determination.

Who really needs to be led, after all? Competent staff know their jobs, and if they’re not competent then the organization has other problems. Very few of us need ongoing, daily supervision. In fact, most evidence points to the fact that employees who are given ownership of their job and the freedom to accomplish job-related goals in their own ways are happier and more productive (for instance, see Seibert, Silver, & Randolph 2004). The best thing a so-called leader can do is support the team, offer guidance and inspiration to create a common vision, and otherwise stay out of the way. “Leadership is not domination,” writes Goleman, “but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal” (1995, 149). At its best, leadership is simply about empowering and bringing out the best in an organization’s staff.  Shouldn’t that be called something else?

Emotions Rule

We’ve all heard the term “emotional intelligence” (EI), but how many librarians apply it in the workplace, or even fully understand the concept? In an article in the current issue of American Libraries, David Lee King and Michael Porter (2013) hail EI as a critical factor in cultivating positive relationships between and among library staff and customers. While it’s heartening to see the concept appearing in the pages of such a widely read publication in libraries, its cursory treatment in this article leaves much to be desired. Is EI so well-understood and widely adopted in libraries that it no longer requires definition or context (or even an attribution to the book that made it a household term, Daniel Goleman’s 1995 Emotional Intelligence?). Surely not. Yet King and Porter barely scratched the surface of the idea, providing little more than the circular reasoning that “We must work to develop our emotional intelligence because it will help us more accurately perceive emotions in ourselves and others” (81). While EI sounds like an idea everyone can easily grasp – after all, aren’t we all de facto experts on the subject of our own emotions? – it is far more than just understanding the basics of human psychology. It has to do with how we recognize and understand our emotions and those of our coworkers, and how we address those emotions in constructive ways. People respond differently to the same situation, so emotional intelligence demands sensitivity to those various responses.

Considering that King and Porter omit a definition of emotional intelligence, it’s worth revisiting the concept here. In a 1998 Harvard Business Review article, Goleman succinctly summarized the components of emotional intelligence as follows:

  1. Self-awareness, defined as the ability to understand and recognize your emotions and their effect on others;
  2. Self-regulation, the ability to put emotions or impulse reactions aside and respond rationally to a situation;
  3. Motivation, or the drive to achieve;
  4. Empathy, the ability to recognize and understand others’ emotions and to respond strategically; and
  5. Social skill, the ability to connect with and relate to others.

None of this is easy, particularly during challenging interactions or difficult times. Perhaps the two greatest calls to action in this list are to “respond rationally” to situations and to “respond strategically” to others’ emotions. Together, Goleman argues, these qualities describe a leader who is likely to motivate and inspire those they work with and create a positive, higher achieving work environment. Those embracing the importance of EI in the workplace recognize that the key is not to try to leave emotions at the door, but to address and manage them constructively. This includes recognizing when decision-making may be inappropriately driven by emotions (or simple personality conflicts), and ensuring that reason prevails.

While Goleman’s research is already fifteen years old, its impact seems only to grow. A recent article in Harvard Business Review provides what is essentially an update to the EI concept. In “Leadership is a Conversation,” Groysberg and Slind (2012) note, “Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person- to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations” (78). The shift to more global organizations, increases in the number of younger staff with different views on communication, and the spike in technological changes and social network activity have combined to effect a shift in the way employees interact on a daily basis and in the way leaders might most successfully function. Groysberg and Slind see this as taking place through what they dub the four “I”s: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. The article, which includes a chart summarizing these new practices as compared to traditional ones, brings EI to the forefront yet again.

Leadership in Libraries

As organizations like any others, the same rules apply in libraries. Just as Groysberg and Slind describe the effects of changing technologies and workplace demographics, so too are these forces playing out in the staffing profiles of our libraries. King and Porter recommend a simple approach to these shifts, which serves as a starting point for discussion:

A good first step is simply to recognize its importance and maintain an awareness of our reactions as they happen. Examining the emotionalreactions of others, particularly in difficult times, is also important. Listening, understanding, having patience, empathizing, and showing strength and resilience—these are all key components (81).

By this reasoning, EI is just about being kind and rational with our colleagues. Decades of top-down administrative theory have given way to a humanist approach to the workplace, driven and formed by the core fact that we are all human and subject to human joys and passions. Shedding the belief that work requires the repression of emotions, and instead allowing those feelings to pass through the office in constructive ways, can provide needed catharsis for all involved.

The challenge for library leaders is to support such catharsis. Library work can be stressful, and every office environment has moments when not everyone gets along. When emotions flare up, the manager’s task is to acknowledge, understand, and defuse them by making appropriate changes. Small adjustments to the daily life in the office may help, such as reconsidering who reports to whom or how workflows might be eased if personalities conflict. If changes are made, they must be made openly and with the support of all parties involved. This requires some level of sensitivity and flexibility to do well, but any efforts are sure to be appreciated. In many cases, just listening and allowing staff members to vent may be all that is needed.

Embracing a new, humanist framework in the office may be liberating. Certainly it changes the model upon which Peter’s Principle is based, and holds the possibility of empowering us each to recognize when we have reached the right place in an organization that best fits our skills and interests. This is not to suggest that we should be afraid to try taking on new roles, nor that we should avoid a challenge. Continuous growth and development is an important aspect of any career. But for those who rise to their level of incompetence and are emotionally intelligent enough to recognize their unfortunate position, the opportunity to shift (possibly “backwards”) within the hierarchy to a more suitable role is invaluable. An organization that functions based on supporting roles rather than reporting structures, one that endorses the importance of emotional intelligence in its daily functions, will be flexible and wise enough to support such shifts. In the end, isn’t that the sort of organization we’d all like to work for?

Many thanks to Brett Bonfield and Jason Martin for their patience and feedback as reviewers of this article.


Drath, W. (2001). The Deep blue sea: Rethinking the source of leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goleman, D. (1998). What makes a leader? Harvard business review, 76 (6), 93-102.
———. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Groysberg, B., & Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a conversation. Harvard business review, 90(6), 76-84.
King, D. L., & Porter, M. (2013). Develop your emotional intelligence. American libraries 44(1/2), 81. Available at http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/archives/issue/januaryfebruary-2013.
Owens, B. P., & Hekman, D. R. (2012). Modeling how to grow: An Inductive examination of humble leader behaviors, contingencies, and outcomes.”  Academy Of management journal, 55(4), 787-818.
Peter, L. J., & Hull, R. (2009). The Peter principle: Why things always go wrong. HarperBusiness: New York.
Seibert, S. E., Silver, S. R., & Randolph, W. (2004). Taking empowerment to the next level: A Multiple-level model of empowerment, performance, and satisfaction. Academy Of Management Journal, 47(3), 332-349


8 Responses

  1. Interesting and timely post, but I think it misses one very important fact: no library is really a self-standing institution, so library managers tend to be just another step in the organizational chart. We all have to report to someone: The CEO, The Provost, The Library Board, etc.

    I think that’s sometimes forgotten from other segments of the Library. As a long time librarian (and long time library manager), it is my job to make my teams job as seamless and productive as possible. But that does have to be a two-way proposition. I promote (and sometimes even try to enforce) that my team go forth and try projects, work on new things, gain experience…they just have to let me and their teammates know they’re doing it.

    To often I think people don’t understand that an organization is not just hierarchical but linear and cyclical. And if we are looking for a new model with more emotional intelligence, there needs to be more lateral
    transparency and communication and that is something we don’t often see in libraries. It can be easy to blame management for a project fail or supposed lack of support, but what did that person do to make their project really work?

    I’m also a firm believer in project management, which is common in organizational development, but not necessarily in libraries. Someone comes to me with a great idea, I am supportive, but I want to know what their next steps are. Is there a plan if this becomes successful as to how we handle the larger workload? Is there a plan B if its not successful? Do I need to work with my superiors to transition this in? And, most importantly, have you told your teammates about this?
    I think the idea of the Peter principle is valid and it our job as leaders to help facilitate the gaining of proper experience. But they have to be willing to work at it.

  2. Robert

    On your “Leadership is a Dirty Word” section, I agree that most people don’t feel the need to be micromanaged, and like you say, if micromanagement is in fact needed, then the organization has larger problems.

    However, I would point out that the business world makes a useful distinction between leadership and management, and in the end, your critique applies to managers but much less to leaders. This site–http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/what-is-the-difference-between-management-and-leadership/–defines the terms fairly well. TL;DR: “The manager’s job is to plan, organize and coordinate. The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate.”

    The *leadership* skills (i.e., promoting a vision) developed in one position can effectively transfer from a lower-level position to a higher one, while the *management* skills (i.e., directing ongoing operations) needed in the higher position are not nearly as likely to be developed in the lower one.

    1. Tina

      Robert makes an important point on the distinction between leadership and management. Also, management skills can be learned but can you learn to be a leader? I spent many years in the business world before becoming a librarian and have to say that I see more resistance to being managed in the library world than I ever saw in the business world. There is an undercurrent of “who are you to tell me what to do?” and I’m not even talking about micromanaging people. Sometimes a decision has to be made and it may be unpopular but the acceptance of that and the willingness to do it, in my opinion, is more prevalent in the business world than the library world. It’s been rather fascinating to watch.

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