The Garrulous Jay – The Peter Principle

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In their eponymous 1969 book, Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull introduced the world to The Peter Principle. I have been thinking about The Peter Principle a lot this week…

Wikipedia succinctly summarises this as follows: “The Peter principle states that a person who is competent at their job will earn a promotion to a position that requires different skills. If the promoted person lacks the skills required for the new role, they will be incompetent at the new level, and will not be promoted again.”

It became painfully clear as the UK government unravelled over the last 44 days that Liz Truss lacked the skills required to perform the role into which she had been promoted.

I think the demise of the UK’s shortest serving Prime Minster provides us with some timely reminders as to what constitutes good and bad leadership.

It’s a listening job

First and foremost I think leadership is about listening, not just hearing, let alone telling. Listening involves active engagement with what you are being told, taking this on board and shaping your decisions and behaviours based on the understanding this gives you.

The ability to listen will feed into and be fed by the other traits I see as central to leadership.

Keep your friends close…

…and your enemies closer! This old adage has direct relevance to one of the fundamental misjudgements made by Liz Truss from the get-go: she picked the wrong team.

By surrounding herself with her own supporters she became insulated from her critics and limited the talent pool available to her in forming a government.

Choosing your team is of central importance to good leadership. Dissenters should be welcome: they build strength rather than weakness. Without them no one tells the Emperor he or she is wearing no clothes.

The art of the possible

Business leaders sometimes talk about “BHAGs”: Big Hairy Audacious Goals. These are used to drive team’s forward towards an overall strategic objective.

But business and politics alike are about the art of the possible. Even a BHAG has to be based on realism and not wishful thinking or ideology. If it’s not, it will be nothing more than a dream doomed to fail: such was “Trussonomics”.

Actions and words

Leadership requires consistency, both between actions and words, and over time.

Committing to “levelling up” whilst cutting the top rate of income tax, and then not promising to raise benefits in line with inflation does not speak of consistency.

U-turns self-evidently do not reflect consistency, and while a change of plan can reflect pragmatism and flexibility that’s down to the frequency and extent of the changes.

Without consistency leadership lacks credibility.

Self-knowledge versus self-confidence

Finally, self-confidence is not the same as self-knowledge.

Self-confidence is an essential ingredient to the role of a successful leader. But self-knowledge will tell an individual whether they should put themselves forward for the role in the first place, potentially avoiding falling prey to The Peter Principle.