Incompetence knows no barrier of time or place | Sunday Observer

Incompetence knows no barrier of time or place

21 November, 2021

“Many a man, under the old and new systems, has made the upward step from candidate to legislator, only to achieve his level of incompetence” – Laurence J. Peter

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. In time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carryout its duties. Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.

This is known as the Peter Principle since its recorded formal introduction in Dr. Peter’s book by the same name. Most people have experienced situations where an employee who was quite good at his job was promoted to a higher position in the same organisation or at a different place only to find how incompetent he is at the new position, which he was not prepared or trained for anyway.

More productive

Though it is clear even to the administration that the particular employee would have been more productive at his previous position, sending him back to that position would be considered unfair and even unethical.

There is nothing about being a great surgeon that prepares a doctor to run a hospital. Similarly, being an award-winning professor (or a spiritually awakened religious leader for that matter) does not merely qualify a person to run a university. Nevertheless, many organisations, from hospitals to universities, use similar standards to select their leaders, paying little or no attention to their management skills and their vision for the future of the organization.

Such organisations, not only end up with highly incompetent leaders but also lose their best performers in the new leader’s previous department. In some countries, of course, none of these matters other than the blessings of the politicians who rule the country at the time. The irony is that those rulers may also have been selected with the same mentality not understanding that being a great surgeon, a professor, a military leader, or even a member of parliament does not in any way imply that the person is ready to be the leader of the country.

The one who gets promoted also would be reluctant to deny it, though he may feel that he is not ready to handle the responsibilities of the new position. This decision may depend on factors such as the pay raise and all other benefits that come with it, not to mention fulfilling the dream of achieving those ego boosting status. On the contrary, the earlier one secures those promotions the more recognised and admired one would be by the rest of the society promoting competition to be recognized as the youngest to reach that particular position.

Therefore, we rarely hear of anyone who has said “no” to a promotion based on the understanding of his/her own competencies. There are people who have not accepted certain promotions due to other reasons such as health, family obligations and/or their understanding of the boss’s expectations of sexual favors in return.

This is further reinforced by seeing their predecessors, with less competence, climb up the ladder of promotions unobstructed, perhaps to even reach the level of CEO.


Leadership is one of the most important factors influencing the success of a company. Poor leadership can demoralize and demotivate the employees which will affect employee retention negatively.

There are hundreds of theories, thousands of books, academic papers, seminars, and workshops about leadership but very few about followership. Universities and other institutes of higher education loudly trumpet their leadership development prowess, and most of the prospective students would also be looking for leadership as one of the main skills to develop by following a degree program.

Therefore, not only the employers but also higher educational institutions, in their efforts to recruit the best, consider the leadership abilities of the candidate as one of the main characteristics to look for.

But at the recruitment level the employers blame the schools and universities for not training youngsters to develop efficient work habits, ability to work in a team and creative problem solving. What they do not realise is the fact that they are also following a trend that most of the others are following where teachers, professors and university administrators blame the politicians for inefficiency of the policies and insufficient funding for education.

Trade unions blame the management and the government. Managers blame the unions for pushing workers for nothing but raises and other employee benefits. Religious leaders blame the influence from other cultures and all types of media for dragging people away from moral teachings of the religion, while atheists put the blame on the religious institutions for segregating the population.Sociologists and psychologists say that the deterioration of the value systems within the home and family establishments produce people who cannot understand ‘on-the-job’ responsibilities and the problems they create by seeking positions they are not competent to handle. The most interesting fact that goes unacknowledged, perhaps intentionally by most people is that the leaders of those homes and families where the value systems seem to have deteriorated are also the very same people from the categories mentioned above in the cycles of blame game.

The link between leadership and the performance of a team is well established and understood irrespective of the type of work that the team is engaged in.One might experience it from the early stages of one’s life within the family and in the school.Depending on the cultural and social norms and/or other circumstances the father or the mother or sometimes even an older sibling takes a leadership role within the family. A newborn starts life following his/her parents or primary care givers first and then continues the learning process by following older siblings, other relatives, friends, peers, teachers, counsellors, mentors, and other role-models.During one’s school career one will be exposed to sports and other types of competitions, class projects and volunteer work done by different student organisations and/or fund-raising events for the school where the link between leadership and performance can easily be understood.

After a successful completion of a task, such as winning a match, achieving a sales target or a particular goal that the team set out to achieve, often, it is the leader of the team who is recognized, highlighted, and praised much more than the other team members. Of course, the leader shoulders a bigger responsibility than the others, but he/she cannot do it alone.

Equally important

The followers are equally important since the achievements are not possible if they didn’t follow the leader’s instructions in an intelligent manner.Leadership and followership are roles we all play at different times.One can find certain situations where one has to be a follower and certain other situations to be a leader.

Therefore, it makes good sense for one to be as good as one can at both followership and leadership right from the beginning of one’s life. Good followers are highly motivated, committed, and diligent workers who pay attention to details. Competence is an important characteristic a follower should have, and it is the skill of the leader to recruit competent followers.Inefficient leaders, who try to put the blame on the followers’ incompetence, when things go wrong, should get their share of the blame for not being competent and skilled enough to choose competent followers at the recruitment level itself.

There are blind followers who are sometimes known as ‘yes men/women’. One of the ways to create ‘yes men/women’ in an organisation, of course, is to have a toxic leadership that expects the followers to do just that.A toxic leader will be very comfortable with a bunch of ‘yes men/women’ around him/her so that his/her decisions will not be questioned or challenged even if the subordinates knew that they were detrimental to the organization.

The working formula for such an organization will then be: Incompetence + Incompetence = Incompetence.Leadership within systems lead by incompetent leaders often would be a popularity contest or a political game in which, instead of the most competent, the most manipulative people will thrive.

Unfortunately, it is very easy to see occupational incompetence everywhere including the educational establishment and without taking the ‘incompetence’ tumor out of the body of education there is no hope of even thinking about a cure for the ‘incompetence’ disease in any other body important for a sustainable planet.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]