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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thanks, Dr. Peter!

Last night’s debate between U.S. Senator Richard Burr and his opponent, N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, calls to mind Dr. Laurence J. Peter. He’s truly a 20th century hero. In a series of wildly entertaining but deadly serious books, Dr. Peter propounded the “Peter Principle”: in a hierarchy, everyone tends to rise to their level of incompetence.

I read his books when I was an undergraduate student and was deeply affected by them. As I have aged, I have accumulated experience in a variety of hierarchies – corporations, governments, churches, etc – and the more I recognize the truth and universality of Dr. Peter’s analysis.

Based on her performance in the debate, the well-intentioned Marshall has apparently risen to her level of political incompetence. She isn’t alone in that regard. I am drawing the unfortunate but inescapable conclusion that Barack Obama, just like his predecessor George W. Bush, reached his level of incompetence immediately upon election to the White House.

Dr. Peter did not condemn humanity to incompetent leadership. His follow-up book The Peter Prescription elaborated upon ways to avoid incompetence. Not all recent Presidents have been failures in office. By any measure, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were each remarkably successful. It’s a paradox that our most effective leaders often have deep character flaws. Nixon was a criminal paranoid. Clinton was a philandering sexual abuser (e.g. Monica Lewinsky).

Of course, character flaws in effective leaders are hardly new. The Christian scriptures don’t put St. Peter in a flattering light.

As I watch Obama’s administration disintegrate into political disaster and Marshall’s candidacy flame out into certain defeat, I must ask myself: where have I reached my own level of incompetence? What can I do about it? Dr. Peter and St. Peter, I believe, would agree that all of us should ask these questions of ourselves from time to time. Through personal reflection on one’s situation, with the help of family, friends and colleagues – even the trendy “personal coaches” that proliferate today – the answers can restore humility and open doors to a happier life.