Thursday, February 24, 2011

Thoughts about the Peter Principle

Wisdom Before Justice


By John Taylor; 2011 Feb 24, Mulk 18, 167 BE



The Peter Principle and "Unsought Appointment."


Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, "The Peter Principle, Why Things Always Go Wrong," William Morrow and Company, New York, 1969


I just finished reading once more a book that was a bestseller in my formative years, "The Peter Principle, Why Things Always Go Wrong." I remember stumbling across it in the Ancaster High School library. Since it was, ostensibly, a humor book, I gobbled it right down. However, the book also had, it seemed to me, a message that was both original and serious. The questions it deals with still fascinate me, so several months ago I pulled a copy of the Peter Principle that I had bought in a used book sale down off my bookshelves and slowly went over it again.


The Peter Principle, you will recall, is the observation by a "hierarchologist," a self-styled student of hierarchies, that workers always rise to the level of their own incompetence and then stay there. No matter how skilled or dedicated they may be, good workers will be promoted in their organization until they hit the brick wall of their own imperfection. If we were perfect in every way there would be no Peter Principle. Humans would just rise and rise forever until, like helium released into the atmosphere, we would soar right on out into space.





But nobody is perfect. We all know that. Human talent is more like hot air; we rise up into the chilly upper levels of earth's atmosphere, start to cool down and sink back down again. No matter how brilliant we may be and no matter how those around us may seek to recognize the value of our contribution and reward us with promotions, the job we do will change around us until we are called upon to do something that we are not good at.


Then we either sink or, in an organization, stick just where we are. We have risen to the level of our incompetence. The book lists the many elaborate and often amusing coping strategies that incompetent workers adopt in order to distract from or cover up the fact that they no longer can do what they are called upon to do in their organization.


Peter illustrates his point about rising to the level of one's incompetence with an organizational chart in the form of an isosceles triangle. A small number of leaders head up the organization near the pointy top of the triangle. Under them are the vast majority of support workers, most of whom reside near the bottom line. Normally, anyone who rises from the bottom to the top will hit his or her level of incompetence long before they get anywhere near the summit. That means that only incompetents are going to head up any organization.




One traditional way of getting around this problem is to draw an arbitrary horizontal line two thirds of the way up the triangle. This is known as aristocracy. An aristocratic society in effect draws an artificial line beyond which no member of the working class can cross, no matter how qualified or brilliant they may be at what they do. Only members of the nobility are allowed to take positions at higher levels of management.


One might expect that organizations following this practice would collapse in a second.


But, Peter points out, it actually worked very well for a long time, thanks to his Peter Principle. The horizontal line (also known as a glass ceiling) had the advantage of assuring that competent workers below the line did not always rise to their level of incompetence. Bad for their career path, but good for the organization. Meanwhile, a fresh talent pool was introducing new workers into the upper levels, many of whom did not have the time to rise to the level of their incompetence before they reached the point of the triangle. This meant that leaders in the higher reaches of an organization often knew what they were doing.




Here is an example from history that Laurence J. Peter does not use, but I think it works. In the First World War, only aristocrats (who had a monopoly on university educations) were allowed to be promoted in the army beyond a certain rank. This worked as long as the military stayed at a steady size. However, as hostilities broke out millions of new soldiers entered the war. There were many more positions available for generals and other brass. The aristocracy's talent pool suddenly was, relatively speaking, much smaller. In this much larger organization, there was ample opportunity for aristocrats to rise to the level of their incompetence. Thousands of upper class twits could think of nothing better than sending millions of soldiers forward to be slaughtered in the no-man's-land between the trenches.


By the time the Second World War rolled around, lessons were learned. The glass ceiling was smashed, the line of privilege crossing the triangle erased. Generals were better prepared and were promoted strictly according to merit. Yet the slaughter was far worse in the Second World War than in the first, even if you count the flu bug that killed millions just after WWI. What was going on? Sure, killing technology was more advanced in the second conflict, and civilians were targeted along with combatants, but the fact remains, the better soldiers are at their job, the worse off we all are.




In effect, what had come about was a sort of meta-Peter's Principle. Organizations rise to the level of their incompetence as well as individuals. The better an organization is at its job, the more likely it is that it will be promoted to a position where it is ill suited to solve the problem set before it.


This is what happened in ancient Athens, which started off being run by tribes. A tribe, like many nationalist organizations today, is a monolithic ethnocracy, an organization based on similar outlook and training.


Leaders in a tribe rise to their incompetence based on identical backgrounds, the same language, culture, etc. For a long time, Athens got nowhere fast, ridden by tyrannies and tribalism. Its tribes or family groups consisted of hundreds of fighting organizational triangles, and there was no way between them. They fought with one another and created nothing but noise and strife. Athens was in an impossible situation. Then, Cleisthenes came up with a master stroke, the brilliant idea of drawing a line across the top of the triangle of their organizational chart.


This arbitrary line they called the Demes.


A Demes was a sort of district or neighbourhood. Once the new line was drawn, the tribe was no longer the only way to advance in the Athenian hierarchy. A citizen was identified by Demes, not family group; in order to vote, you used your name and the Demes in which you lived. In this way, a new, inter-tribal talent pool was created. Nobody had heard of a Demes before Cleisthenes, but it did not matter.


Having that Demes line drawn made the creativity of Athens possible. Not least of this was the invention of democracy. In fact, that is what Demes means, etymologically, a common population, a People Place, a grouping based on location rather than genes. The Demes was a district or place where members of tribes walked out of their triangle of tribalism and became something new: people, citizens, cosmopolitans. The world has never been the same since.


As I finished The Peter Principle I was reminded more and more of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Christ was teaching the same thing with this story. It is a sort of ethical Peter Principle. If you want to do something truly moral, the parable teaches, do it to somebody outside your usual organization, your normal point of reference. Do good to an outsider, as the man in the parable did to a beaten and robbed Samaritan lying half dead on the road. From here, from acts like this, from shots in the dark come real ethical competency. Such acts have a spiritual effect far beyond the outward action. Do good, but not only in your own group to those with the same training and ways of thinking. Go outside the box, into the void where there are no rewards or punishments, go to wherever your own sense of what is right can be the only referent. Do it in the name of compassion, and do it for knowledge. For, "the heaven of divine wisdom is illumined by the twin luminaries of consultation and compassion." Here abides true moral competence.




In effect, extending succor to the Samaritan draws a line across the void, like the Demes did in Athens. It is no coincidence that once the arbitrary Demes line was drawn on the triangle of the Athenian organizational chart, a certain wise man arose, the father of philosophy. Socrates was the first in history to define clearly just what wisdom is. Socrates recognized, openly, honestly, that he had no knowledge of what wisdom is.


Yet the Oracle of Delphi chose him, saying, "There is none wiser." His elevation to this station was not sought, it came from outside. Already, in terms of the Peter Principle, Socrates was utterly incompetent. He himself saw that he had reached his level of incompetence, yet he pointed it out and said to one and all,


"This, our own ignorance, is what we should deal with first. Start with what you do not know, not with what you do know or, to speak more accurately, what you think you know. Begin by recognizing that we have no sure knowledge of the most important things (including God Himself). Then, deal with it. Begin by starting an enquiry with all, groups and individuals, and try to find out together what wisdom is. No individual will ever know the answer, but as long as we see our limitations, in our group mind maybe we can attain to wisdom. Only with such dialectic cutting across organizations will wisdom lay the groundwork for justice."


This is why, I think, Baha'u'llah depicts justice and wisdom as two parts of a single procession. Wisdom goes on like a flag tilted up, before the march of a just king. Only after him does justice bring up the rear. He says,


"Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear. He verily is the ornament that adorneth the brow of peace and the countenance of security." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, Lawh-i-Maqsud, 164-165, Gl. 219)


Why wisdom first, before leadership, before justice? I think it is because heart and mind lead the body. Justice is force, reward and punishment. However, the sanctions of justice are only for those who transgress. Wisdom is love and words of love, and these are always in the van. Wisdom is learning, consultation, and it is actions of love, compassion, as Baha'u'llah tells us. Wisdom is preventive medicine. It dissipates wrongs before they can take place by washing away the cause, ignorance, the folly of imagining we are adequately competent. This is why the House of Justice so often refers to "unsought appointment" as a distinguishing mark of the Cause. They wrote,


"It is solely by the process of free election or by unsought appointment that the members of the institutions of this Order are assigned to their positions in it. There is no profession in either the teaching of the Faith or its administration for which one can train or to which a believer can properly aspire." (Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)


For the House of Justice an entire army of the wise, of latter-day Socrates, must go on before, laying the groundwork, setting up the wisdom that is needed in order for justice, the titular, eponymous goal of the House, to be codified, promulgated and enforced. If everybody were as honest about their limitations as Socrates and a true Baha'i are, then nobody would be promoted beyond their competence. All appointments and promotions would be unsought, because all would fear going beyond their own limits. Such is the fear of God.


The energy for this moral courage comes from the love created by the suffering of the Manifestation himself. Baha'u'llah declared that although He Himself did not seek the high position of leadership, He still suffered more from the heedless followers of the Bab than any Manifestation before Him or after,


"On every side We witness the menace of their spears, and in all directions We recognize the shafts of their arrows. This, although We have never gloried in any thing, nor did We seek preference over any soul." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 249)


It is in memory of this unsought appointment by our Lord that we His followers seek not to seek any distinctions but those of the spirit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As usual, when you strike gold, you produce too much to comment on. Particularly as I have almost used up my Internet time budget before coming here in mostly trival things (with one exception).
I am currently reading Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. I was particularly struck by the emphasis which Baha'u'llah places on a) the fear of God, and b)justice. So, I was, before reading this epistle, equally quick to point to wisdom first, or at least second in the numerical order of virtue's importance. However now Justice and Fear of God have a much strong claim to my attention. I should go further and explain with references. BUT I have to go and study Japanese. Maybe tomorrow, or Sunday.
regards from Japan