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Peter Principle Meets Leadership Bias, aka Throw Them to the Wolves Sometimes

Nov 10, 2020 | Leadership & Personal Development, Short-form

Reading Time: 2 minutes

How do our leaders manage to get it so wrong so often? Meet what I’d like to call leadership bias.

Participants were randomly assigned to positions with unequal opportunities for success. […] [W]inners were generally more likely to believe that the game was fair, even when the playing field was most heavily tilted in their favor. In short, it’s not just how the game is played, it’s also whether you win or lose.

Many of my more experienced managers and leaders will be familiar with the Peter Principle.

This maxim has been well-known in business over the past 50 years. Put simply: people rise just above their level of competence.

You know, those middle managers every corporation has. The ones where, maybe they weren’t half bad at their original job, so someone thought maybe a promotion was in order. Problem is, our hypothetical middle manager, let’s call him Peter, is a complete idiot.

But he doesn’t know it.

From our study above, it’s not hard to figure out why… Peter and his superiors have leadership bias. Because once upon a time, he was at the right place at the right time. And through no talent or skill of his own, was given credit for something good that happened. That looked good on a performance review and gave Peter more confidence to act within the organization.

He also used his newfound managerial powers for something dirty. And that’s to play politics, dispensing with any employee who might threaten his status.

Now, I’m not saying that talent or skill don’t factor into leadership. Or getting it right. Yet, time and time again, people have a complete inability to tell whether or not their success—or someone else’s—was a result of their efforts or not. And most simply assume it was.

Politicians and economists are probably the most egregious example of this problem.

Ever notice this one with them? … If something bad is happening, just do something, anything. Did something bad stop? Whatever we did must have worked! Did something bad continue despite their efforts? Insist you need to do more, lots more, of whatever it is you did!

Then pat yourself on the back.

We can see it across our society, from mandated face masks to big business bailouts. And these leaders are very sure of themselves, even as they now exist within severely malfunctioning systems or organizations. Or ones at extreme risk of being so.

But how do you safeguard yourself or others from leadership bias?

Torch your leaders and put them through the wringer. Although everyone’s overall mentoring style will differ and context is important, you may want to try occasionally stress-testing your captains.

Send them to the frontlines by surprise! Give them the hardest calls before they’re ready! Throw them to the wolves for a day!

Or at least this is what I’m inclined to suggest, in moderation. Doing so will teach them that there are often imperfect situations where there aren’t clear winners or losers. It will also require that they get their hands dirty alongside their team while you test their character.

Because leadership—real leadership—isn’t only the bravado of winning. It’s also having the character and the humility of admitting when you came up short.

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