Summary of The Peter Principal

The Peter Principle

National Association of Christian Ministers Leadership Series

By Michael Mooney, Exec. Elder

Why Incompetent People are in Charge #

The Peter Principle is a concept formulated by Laurence J. Peter in his 1969 book titled “The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.” The principle suggests that in hierarchical organizations, individuals are promoted to their level of incompetence.

According to the Peter Principle, employees who perform well in their current positions are often rewarded with promotions to higher-level roles.

This process continues until they reach a position where they are no longer competent. At this point, they remain in that position, unable to be promoted further, because they have demonstrated their inability to effectively fulfill the responsibilities of the higher-level role.

The Peter Principle is based on the assumption that organizations primarily promote employees based on their performance in their current roles rather than their suitability for the higher-level positions. As a result, individuals may continue to be promoted until they reach a level where they lack the necessary skills, knowledge, or aptitude to perform effectively. This can lead to a situation where a significant number of employees within an organization are in positions they are not qualified for, resulting in decreased overall productivity and performance.

All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.

Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. (Pro 16:2-3)

The Peter Principle highlights the need for organizations to assess employees’ abilities and qualifications before making promotion decisions. It also emphasizes the importance of ongoing training, development, and support for employees who are promoted to higher positions. By recognizing and addressing the limitations of the Peter Principle, organizations can strive to create a more effective and competent workforce.

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1Th 5:21).

Seeing It in Real Life

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were under the authority of someone who you believed was incompetent?  If you have spent any time in public, chances are you have noticed this incompetence.  It shows up in government bureaucracies, non-profit organizations/churches, retail management, etc.  There always seems to be someone in a position of authority/leadership that is just obviously incapable of living up to the reasonable expectations of their role.  How do these people get into these positions in the first place?  With so many unemployed, yet far more talented, educated, and experienced people out there, why are so many incompetent people employed?  Solomon probably considered these same questions when he said:

Ecc 9:11 GW

(11)  I saw something else under the sun. The race isn’t won by fast runners, or the battle by heroes. Wise people don’t necessarily have food. Intelligent people don’t necessarily have riches, and skilled people don’t necessarily receive special treatment. But time and unpredictable events overtake all of them.

Interestingly, there at least may be an explanation for incompetent positions of authority at church.  Dr. Laurence J. Peter is the author of The Peter Principle.  In this book he develops a theory of Hierarchy for why things always go wrong, calling it: The Peter Principle –hence the name of the book.

Here it is in a nutshell

Dr. Peter proposes that people will generally rise through promotion within organizations over time.  At some point, every individual will reach their highest level of competence where they perform at their peak.  However, because they perform so well in that role, they will eventually be promoted again –this time to the level of their incompetence. Once they reach this height, they will continue to serve ineffectually in this position for quite some time before upper leadership realizes their inadequacies.  These “blind spots” are probably due to the reputations of the promoted individuals, having previously served so well in times past.  The Peter Principle offers a good explanation for the perplexing question of how unqualified people get their positions.

What should a person do when they find themselves stuck under the leadership of the incompetent? 

Perhaps it is best to first consider what not to do.

* Do not tell them that they are incompetent

* Do not argue with them

* Do not correct them

* Do not show them how knowledgeable or smart you are

You are probably wondering why.  The answer is simple, they are not likely to care, and will probably resent you for it anyway.  Even levelheaded people struggle with being told that they are wrong, or need improvement –let alone someone who is struggling with incompetence.

Pro 12:15 MKJV

(15)  The way of a fool is right in his own eyes…

You may consider doing this instead.

* Always show respect for their position

* Offer improvement suggestions passively

* Cary out your duties without complaining

* Take comfort in the fact that you are not in charge, and therefore probably not responsible for the outcomes of decisions

1Pe 5:6-7 MKJV

(6)  Therefore be humbled under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you in due time,

(7)  casting all your anxiety onto Him, for He cares for you.

How to Position Yourself for Opportunity 

Whether we like it or not, many people are in positions that they cannot handle, and there are bound to be times when we have to submit to their leadership.  Even if we think we could do a better job, resisting their authority will never position us to take their places.  When upper leadership looks into the circumstances and sees someone arguing, complaining, resisting leadership, stirring up trouble, etc. they will not likely see such a person as “leadership material”.  However, if they see someone who knows how to follow directions and get along with others, such a person will stand out as “the competent”.

The bottom line is that resisting the incompetent will get us nowhere.  

* It will never help them to discover their inadequacies, resulting in their willful resignation.

* It will never help them to appreciate how much smarter we are than they.

* It will never cause an uprising among the laity to overthrow them to install us in their place.

By now, you should be noticing a humors tone here…


The best we can do is to humble ourselves in submission to God, and in time He will position us for our obedience.  If we find ourselves in a church, position, job, etc. where we cannot do this, it may be in our best interest to move on, rather than limit ourselves before both God and man with frustration and discouragement.


Peter, Laurence J; Hull, Raymond (1969). The Peter Principle: why things always go wrong. New York: William Morrow and Company. OCLC 1038496.  WorldCat  lists 24 editions.