The Peter Principle

Alex Vidal“I feel incompetent to perform duties which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.” – Andrew Johnson

NEW YORK CITY — Joseph “Erap” Estrada was the first classic example of The Peter Principle in the Philippines.

From a movie actor, he became city mayor, senator, vice president, and eventually president.

He rose to his level of incompetence in a hierarchy.

Boxer Manny Pacquiao and Alma Moreno, if they win in the senate race on May 9, 2016, could be the next candidates for The Peter Principle.

There’s a lot of incredible personalities in different fields — incompetent teachers, incompetent police and military top brass, incompetent public officials, incompetent supervisors, and so on and so forth.

In almost all areas of human endeavor, we can actually always encounter employees that tend to rise to their level of incompetence in a hierarchy like Erap.

A book written by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull it tells why Utopian plans never generate Utopias, why prosperity fails to produce happiness, why courts do not dispense justice, why governments cannot maintain order, why schools do not bestow wisdom.



Dr. Peter, a Canada-born former associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, coined the term “occupational incompetence”, which has become a universal phenomenon.

“We see indecisive politicians posing as resolute statesmen and the ‘authoritative source’ who blames his misinformation on ‘situational imponderables.’ Limitless are the public servants who are indolent and insolent; military commanders whose behavioral timidity belies their dread-naught rhetoric, and governors whose innate servility prevents their actually governing,” writes Dr. Peter.

“In our sophistication, we virtually shrug aside the immoral cleric, corrupt judge, incoherent attorney, author who cannot write and English teacher who cannot spell.”

The author reveals that we see proclamations at universities authored by administrators whose own office communications are hopelessly muddled; and droning lectures from inaudible or incomprehensible instructors.



Seeing incompetence at all levels of every hierarchy–political, legal, educational and industrial–Dr. Peters says “I hypothesized that the cause was some inherent feature of the rules governing the placement of employees. Thus began my serious study of the ways in which employees move upward through a hierarchy, and of what happens to them after promotion.”

He collected hundreds of case histories for his scientific data and discovered that all such cases had a common feature. The employees had been promoted from a position of competence to a position of incompetence. This could happen to every employee in every hierarchy, says Dr. Peter.



This led him to formulate The Peter Principle and inadvertently founded a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies.

The term “hierarchy” was originally used to describe system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning, explains the author, includes any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of ranks, grades or class.

Dr. Peter believes that hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration.

His principle “is the key to understanding of all hierarchal systems, and therefore to an understanding of the whole structure of civilization.”

A few eccentrics, he explains, try to avoid getting involved with hierarchies, but everyone in business, industry, trade-unionism, politics, government, the armed forces, religion and education is so involved. All of them are controlled by the Peter Principle.



Dr. Peter elaborates: “Many of them, to be sure, may win a promotion or two, moving from one level of competence in that new position qualifies them for still another promotion. For each individual, for you, for me, the final promotion is from a level of competence to a level of incompetence.”

So, given enough time–and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy–each employee rises to, and remains at, his level of incompetence, he further stresses.

Peter’s Corollary states: In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.

“You will rarely find, of course, a system in which every employee has reached his level of incompetence. In most instances, something is being done to further the ostensible purposes for which the hierarchy exists,” Dr. Peter explains.

Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence, the book further states.