7 Reasons Why the Peter Principle is Ruining the Fire Service.
Every Fire Department has that supervisor that is incapable of leading, whether it is the Chief that hides in his/her office, the Station Captain that made an egregious error on a call, or Lieutenant that is assigned to the first due engine. We have all worked with them and it drives all of us crazy. We talk about their deficiencies at the next call, during meals, and even gripe to our families.
The single biggest decision that the command staff can make to affect the entire department—bigger than all the rest— is who they promote. When you promote the wrong person to manage others, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits, not time off—nothing.
The Peter principle is a concept in management theory formulated by Laurence J. Peter and published nearly half a century ago. The theory is that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”
- When you do good you get promoted into to something you are terrible at. A typical example in the fire service is promoting a Master Technician/Driver to the Lieutenant position. Knowing the intricacies of your apparatus, your response area, and your complex equipment does not always prepare you to manage people. All your experience and technical know-how is going to be stuck behind a desk, making schedules, writing reports, and concocting performance evaluations. These competencies are vastly different and a proficiency in engineer/operator type of job does not correlate to managing people, personalities, and conflicts. If you are not prepared for your new position in a leadership role as a Lieutenant, you will do yourself and your crew a disservice
- You won’t get fired or replaced you will just remain stagnant in your new position. Possibly because the manager above you has reached their threshold of incompetence as well. They are unable to realize how unproductive you are in your position. The subordinates will adapt and will now just work around you seeking advice from other more effective managers or subordinate leaders.
- When you are competent you have recordable and obvious output. You are being held accountable for that production, once it stops and there is little or no output, you are now judged by the input. This input is your demeanor, attitude, punctuality, friendliness, loyalty, and helpfulness. However, if you are too competent you make the immobile managers look bad. Thus jeopardizing your position in the hierarchy or worse being promoted to a higher position that you aren’t adequately equipped for, succumbing to the axiom, “Certified, not qualified”
- The principle suggests that this incompetence is inevitable. So as you progress in your fire service career, you need to decide whether you are going to jump on the train headed toward the void called “Final Placement”. This last station is an ominous place, where you will wear down with a fruitless future, or take your time and forestall this as long as possible. You can slow this locomotive by mentoring the person that took your old position while providing a performance plan to meet your own standards. Another avenue is to seek out your own mentor, to provide you guidance, advice, and discuss your performance objectives for your new career path. Lastly, there is training, these are courses on leadership, management, and organizational tactics to address this pervasive incompetence.
- If your intent is to race to the finish line, then just latch on to the superiors, doing all you can to gain a premature promotion, stepping on as many backs and shoulders as you can, climbing to the top. Once they are your subordinates you will be able to change things for the better, set new rules, and lead your former coworkers. This is a delusion that comes with a price. Don’t be surprised if your shift, crew, or company start seeking transfers, new assignments, or increase their leave usage. Victor Lipman a former Fortune 500 Manager, published an article, postulating, people don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers.
- If you are astute enough to realize that you don’t want to be hurled into career limbo, you need to seek out places you are productive, useful, and happy. Once there, you should forego seeking promotion, better yet focus on mastering your craft, self-betterment, and even mentoring subordinates. You are a wealth of knowledge, now go and make others’ lives richer. I am not advising you to refuse promotions, just be prepared to accept the new position and its responsibilities since they may vary drastically from your former position.
- We can’t just fire all of our incompetent managers, it will create a vortex. They are useful in the sense of, they will inflict the least amount of damage on the productive people in your department. The competent employees will maintain a non-threatening illusion that these managers are useful, are producing, and cling to a bright future. All of this to avoid repeating this vicious cycle of new incompetent managers.
The Harvard Business Review has 4 decades of business articles providing solutions to curb the endemic management dilemma. It is not just the Fire Service, this problem arises in every institution, career, and organization, you will never be able to escape its reach. From a subordinate’s point of view, every department I have worked for has a repetitious cycle of the deficient leadership. Generations of fire service managers have been fraught with incompetent leaders. It is the duty of our managers to address bad bosses by improving their own leadership skills, becoming a good boss, and stop promoting the incapable. Our jobs as subordinates is to manage ourselves well, be engaged, be committed to the organization with purpose, principle, and pride.
Excellent review of the Peter Principle.
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Great article Brother
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Great article! I wish to say that all hope isn’t lost. I too have read the Peter Principle and saw its uncanny resemblance to the fire service. I do remember that in Dr. Peter and Hill’s book, it states that the median of promoted employees are moderately competent (shown in his competency curve) in their positions. The below average supervisor is also is a great motivation for competent members to promote when they see an incompetent supervisor. It gives them the drive to say “if they could be in that position, and I know I can do a better job, then I’m going to take that promotion”. Now, I’m not making excuses for below average performance, I am just praying that more members follow that route and not have incompetence breed incompetence.
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I watched this over and over til I got to retire, prayers to my local department
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