The Peter Principle: Can Incompetence Be Conquered?

G3 at WTWO 197

This is the tent location I chose at Scout camp several years ago. It was a perfect location. Then it rained. After that, my front door became the entrance to Lake Crume. This photo reminds me of an important leadership question in the spirit of KWH*. How do we respond to our goofs, mistakes and “uh-oh” moments?

One way to explore an answer to this question is found in the classic book The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter.  The basic premise in Peter’s work** is that in a hierarchical organization, every person will eventually rise to her or his level of incompetence. The book is cleverly written, and it includes countless humorous observations including the following.

“A multitude of different explanations is as bad as no explanation at all.”

“You will see that in every hierarchy the cream rises until it sours.”

“Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figure-head leads the ship.”

Ouch! And pretty funny stuff.

The reason I believe The Peter Principle is accurate is because we are in hierarchicies every day of our our lives. We call them organizations.  Families are organizations with hierarchies.  Businesses, regardless of how flattened the org chart is, are hierarchies.  Nonprofits have a distinct hierarchy.  Since we are in organizations constantly then the most important question becomes, “How do we effectively lead within these contexts?”. I recommend embracing the “ouch” comments above.

Now, back to the photo. Every tent on a platform looks like a good location to camp before it rains! We all have moments of incompetence. What’s important in the spirit of KWH is The Peter Principle kicks in when we no longer care about learning from these moments in order to become a better leader.

Leadership Point: All leaders will face challenging situations. All leaders will make mistakes. The only challenges or mistakes that define us are the ones that prove The Peter Principle correct, which means we have risen to our level of incompetence.


* KWH stands for Know What Happened Before What Happened Happened – see previous posts for more about KWH!

**The book The Peter Principle was written by Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. Peter is considered the creator of the Principle, and he wrote two additional books on the subject called The Peter Prescription and The Peter Pyramid.


Charlie Brown Leadership: Culture, Communication and Language

profile-picture-1442926501This image is me as a Peanuts character, cleverly imagined by the marketing folks of The Peanuts Movie.

Over 50 years ago, Charles Schulz developed one of the world’s most popular artistic expressions.  I’m a cartoonist at heart so Peanuts, featuring Charlie Brown, has shaped my thinking in many ways to include various aspects related to leadership. The culture Schulz created through Peanuts included its own communication style and language.

It has been quite some time since my last post so here’s a refresher as to what this is all about. I believe there are three important aspects to effective leadership.

  • Know what happened before what happened, happened (KWH)
  • Trust freely given, rather than trust earned (TFG)
  • I don’t care what you believe, I care that you care what you believe (CWYB)

This post is part three of the five leadership aspects of KWH.  The previous two were organization and processes. This post is about the importance of organizational culture, communication and language. Now, back to Charlie Brown!

Schulz created an amazing connection with audiences through printed media, television specials and movies. His world of Peanuts clearly had its own culture. This includes a musical connection thanks to the gifted composer and musician named Vince Guaraldi. The opening musical notes of “Linus and Lucy” . . . duh-da-da-duh-da-da-duh-da (it doesn’t matter how I type it, you are already humming it) . . . immediately connects us to Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus, Woodstock, Sally and all of their Peanuts friends.

Guaraldi perfectly captured the culture of Peanuts through music. It is as distinct as the communication and language Schulz used for his characters, and his characters had their own own language that reflected their personalities and how they communicated. Charlie Brown is the loveable loser. Lucy is the bossy one. Sally is the daydreamer. Linus is the insecure thinker. They each have unique styles of communicating. We can match their communication style with their language.

  • Charlie Brown: “Good grief” or “AAUGH!”
  • Lucy: “YOU NEVER LISTEN!” or “Do you know what your trouble is . . .”
  • Sally: “My sweet babboo!” or “Kiss her you blockhead!”
  • Linus: “There’s a lesson to be learned here . . .” or “The only thing that keeps me going is this blanket”

Then we have Snoopy. Snoopy and his pal Woodstock never used words. Well, Snoopy is a dog and Woodstock is a bird so there’s that point. However, both Snoopy and Woodstock clearly communicated the culture and character of the organization we know as Peanuts.

The Leadership Point: The leadership of an organization shapes the culture of the organization.  The culture of the organization shapes the language used in the organization. The language of the organization shapes how the organization communicates. If you want to understand the leadership of an organization, follow the communication structures and style and listen closely to the language. When you do, you’ll see the leadership style of the Charlie Brown’s and Lucy’s and Sally’s and Linus’s and the entire Peanuts culture.

I’m probably going to start my next blog post with, “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”!


Leadership Jape!

Yep. I bet you looked that word up as well.  Jape. Generally, it means to present something jokingly.  Like I’m going to do now!  But first, a visual image to connect the point.

Lamaini Visit 2015

That is a Mayan temple in Belize. This edition of Know What Happened Before What Happened (KWH) is about processes.  Usually, when that topic arises leaders and . . . well everyone . . . they roll their eyes.  YUK! Who wants to talk about processes (a.k.a. structure, systems, organization)? Jape! Are you kidding? No, no I am not. For leaders, this is important stuff. Are you still kidding?

Nobody wants to talk about it, yet we all desire it. Without processes traffic does not move (I live in Chicago)! Without processes families do not wake and go about their lives in the morning, or afternoon or at bedtime. Without processes . . . well, you get the point.  Whether we accept them or not, we live with them.  And processes are important to us as leaders.  They provide clarity. 

That brings me back to the Mayan temple.  The Mayans understood process and function.  They were so calculated in everything they designed and built.  So, walking those steps, amazing steps because of the exact measured distance between them, helped me understand that for leaders process matters.  Even more so, clarity in sharing the process matters the most. Jape! Are you kidding me? No. Processes matter, and to KWH means leaders need to be crystal clear in describing the process.

I will close on two great process stories.  First, is the story about three stone masons working on a project. The first was hammering a rock so he could finish his task and go home. The second was chipping away at a rock so others could use it in a building project. The third shared that he was shaping a stone because they were building a cathedral. The third mason understood process and the clarity that provided vision.

In the second story, a person approached two people working on a project. The person approached the first builder and asked what she was doing. The first builder said she was building a garage. The person approached the second builder and asked the same question. The second builder said he was building a cathedral! The next day the person returned to see only one builder. So, the person asked, “Where is the other builder?”

The first builder replied, “We’re building a garage. He was fired because he thought he was building a cathedral.”

Do you really know what you are building? Do you know what happened before what happened that led you to where you are and the opportunity you have in front of you? I’ve had moments where I completely missed those questions. I’ve been blessed with other moments when my leadership language helped me clearly identify that to KWH meant.

Until next time . . .

Know What Happened (Part One . . . really Part 1.5)

Leadership step one is following the advice of an amazing person, Sam Powell. Sam always shared, “Know what happened before what happened happened.”

G3 at WTWO 075

I’ve shared some thoughts on this perspective in a previous post (thus this is post 1.5 on this topic).  Yet, every sunrise and sunset reminds me of Sam’s wisdom because at both times we look, pause and ponder what was and will be.

Sam shared that to know what happened before what happened (known as KWH), he meant consider what you witnessed as well as what you did not witness before what actually took place.

When I share “Know what happened . . .” , I believe there are four key elements to this thinking.

  • Leadership inspires organizational culture and the organizational culture inspires organizational communication . . . so to know an organization is to know its leadership
  • Structure and process matters (credit to Peter Senge)
  • Why “The Peter Principle” is a real principle
  • Ultimately, KWH is all about visionary leadership

This post will focus on the first element. Leadership inspires organizational culture, and the culture determines the communication.  Pick any organization.  A family. A church. A club. A gang. A Whatever.

The leadership of the organization directs the culture of the organization. Once the culture of an organization is established, then it is us up to the leadership of the organization to chose how to communicate the message. Knowing what happened before what happened considers all possibilities.

Key Point: If you want to know how an organization functions, then examine the leadership of the organization. So, to know what happened when something happens, make sure you know the leadership.

To know what happens before what happens, consider a child in at the dinner table eating peas. The rambunctious child loves using the spoon to propel peas.  So, too understand what happened before what happened when the child shoots the peas from the spoon, is to know how to share this discussion with the child, “The peas are eating, not for throwing. so please use your spoon to enjoy your meal.”

So, the leadership lesson of KWH is the leadership of setting expectations.  If you don’t establish expectations, then the expectations of others will define you.  The leadership of an organization sets the expectations, the culture of the organization is rooted in those expectations. and how the organization communicates comes from organizational expectations.

Until next time . . .

The “more” that matters the MOST

I have been on an interesting journey this past year. I have been blessed with many wonderful opportunities.


I have been blessed by how I have sleep-walked through even more opportunities. Opportunities where I could have been  . . . a more committed follower of Jesus, a more loving husband, a more caring dad, a more dedicated son, a more engaged brother, a more compassionate colleague, a better friend . . . a more me. (Catch the key word more?) More is a blessing because God has awakened a spirit in me because of my drowsiness.

I believe the commitment to more is important to both a life of faith as well as serving as leader. We can all do what is required. Yet, a life fully called lives in the “more”.  The challenge is we can always do more. The opportunity is doing the more that really matters the most. So, this blog will focus on those two very important perspectives – leadership and faith.  I plan to start with leadership. Over the next many (who knows) weeks I plan to share in depth the three most important leadership perspectives that I have to share.

Know What Happened Before What Happened (credit to Sam Powell – I’ve shared one blog about his influence and I do plan to return to that thread eventually)

Trust Is Freely Given, Rather Than Earned

I Don’t Care About What You Believe, I Care More That You Believe What You Believe

So, thus the journey begins. I look forward to sharing and our discussion.



Know What Happened Before What Happened What Happened

This is Sam Powell.



Sam is a genuine cowboy.  Like me he has a Ph.D. Unlike mine, Sam’s, per his admission, stands for post-hole digging.  I say like mine because I have learned a great deal from Sam, and he, like me, has certainly earned his education.

Sam has shared a great deal of true knowledge with me.  You’ll read more about that in upcoming posts.

Understanding “Know what happened before what happened happened” means this. A young boy always uses his spoon to shoot his peas across the dinner table. Using the statement above as a question: “What happened before what happen happened?” one might say, “The boy shot the peas with the spoon!”

Actually, the boy picking-up the spoon is what happened before what happened happened.  It wasn’t the shooting of the peas, it was seeing the spoon as the shooting of the peas. So, when a child picks-up the spoon simply remind him that it is for eating not shooting!

For leaders, vision comes from Sam’s simple, yet inspiring, perspective. Know what happened before what happen happened.


Ouch! The Leadership Impact!


Leaders shape an organization’s culture.

An organization’s culture defines organizational communication.

When I am asked about where one starts when thinking about public relations strategies or organizational communication structures or marketing initiatives I share the two statements above.

The messages an organization communicates reflects its culture.  Ultimately, the culture should reflect the mission and values of the organization.  Sometimes there is a disconnect between the messages and the values/mission, and every time there is a disconnect it is because of the leadership of the organization.

To understand the culture of the organization, research the leadership styles of the executive officers, the board of directors (if there is a board), and the senior leadership.  Before taking a job, research the leadership of those people and then see if it matches the organization’s advertising, public image, social media presence, and internal communications. It may make your work life much, much happier!

One of the most influential books on leadership that every leader should read, model the recommendations and share with others is Kim Cameron’s Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance.  Cameron’s own research and analysis of other research affirms the statements above.  Cameron writes: “Because leaders’ role modeling has an exponential effect on creating such outcomes in organizations, the communication patterns of leaders are especially important.”

Which leads us back to the image above.  It is humorous for one of two reasons.  One, because we have been a part of an organization where the leaders truly reflected the sentiment in the poster, and we were a lousy team. And we remember how insane that experience was as well as how dysfunctional the organization operated. Two, we have been blessed to not have that experience, but we have friends who have so we can only imagine this is how they felt when they crashed their organizational “raft” upon the rocks of cruddy leadership.

Great organizations are a reflection of great leaders, and their communication reflects this culture.

Photo source: