The Peter Principle Revisited

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted May 30, 2002

The Peter Principle (Why Things Go Wrong) is a best selling book by Lawrence J. Peter, a professor of education, in collaboration with Raymond Hall, an author and journalist. It's a fascinating and humorous yet pessimistic book that expounds on the theories of "Hierarchiology" - defined as "a social science, the study of hierarchies, their structure and functioning, the foundation for all social science."

The first time I heard about the Peter Principle was through a speech delivered by Dr. Lawrence Nya Kwiawon Taryor Sr., a Liberian intellectual and theologian and at the time one of the firebrand radicals advocating social change in Liberia during the 1970's. Dr. Taryor used the thesis of the book to mock the Tolbert administration. He pointed out that many of the so-called cabinet members, legislators and other bureaucrats had become functionally useless to society by being appointed and promoted past their levels of competence. Many of these folks, he argued had reached their levels of incompetence. In some cases, some had even reached levels of super incompetence!

In my view, it was true then. However, sadly, it is still true today. At the time the good theologian made these startling observations many of his comrades and fellow radicals were university professors - deeply entrenched and comfortable in their world of academia.

Well, as we all know, Tolbert and his band of "incompetent" fellows were deposed. A golden opportunity presented itself. A host of radicals and self-proclaimed progressive minded intellectuals prominent among whom were Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh, Dr. Amos Sawyer, Professor Drew Mayson, Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh, and of course, Dr. Lawrence Nya Kwiawon Taryor, Sr. entered the stage. They were the new game in town!

There was great hope and optimism in the air. Unfortunately, as the fable goes, "when Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king's men and all the king's horses could not put Humpty Dumpty together again"! Here is what transpired.

As the story goes, Dr. Tipoteh became Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs where he did not distinguish himself as he had in academia. Dr. Boima Fahnbulleh also became a minister and quickly learned that the bureaucratic politicking was not the same as in the halls of academia. Had these intellectual superstars reached levels of incompetence? The verdict is still out.

Professor Mayson was appointed Ambassador to France. As a diplomat, Mayson played it safe and, according to Tom Kamara's "Shifting Alliances in Liberia's Theft and Plunder" article, he crossed carpet and became the intermediary between Sawyer and Taylor. He became a very rich man playing the very same corrupt games he had been eager to criticize and correct.

Another fiercely out-spoken critic of the Tolbert government was Gabriel Baccus Matthews. Though not considered a member of Liberian intelligentsia, nevertheless, an agitator he most clearly was! This man raved and ranted with ferocious energy against the government. He endlessly recited half-baked political ideas and slogans like a parrot. To the untrained and impressionable youth, he came across as a dedicated freedom fighter, an advocate of social change.

Again, after the demise of the Tolbert government, this man worked "comfortably" with the military regime of Samuel K. Doe. He eventually ran for the presidency and lost. He went to work for the infamous Taylor government where he failed to distinguish himself as a statesman. He now works as a PR man for the Taylor administration. And the cries for reform have been silenced. Whatever happened to the campaign to eliminate corruption and restore democracy, justice, liberty and equality? Greed, his true motive, has resurfaced unabashed.

And who can forget the one who became the most prominent and eventually the biggest flop - Dr. Amos Sawyer? Sawyer used his intellectual prowess to belittle his opponent and the True Whig Party in his bid for Mayor of Monrovia. Dr. Sawyer was able to effectively use his captive audience of university students and other intellectually stimulated youth to dehumanize the enemy. A star was born!

Eventually Dr. Sawyer became interim president of Liberia and now holds the dubious distinction of being one of the most "clueless" and inept persons to sit at the helm of leadership in Liberia. He most certainly reached a level of super incompetence!

At the time I first heard about the Peter Principle, I was under the impression that these highly trained scholars were exempt from being its victim. The truth of the matter is the principle is universal. It doesn't just affect and victimize half-witted and lowly educated career bureaucrats and politicians. It can also claim the most highly educated professionals and academics. Anyone who steps outside of his comfort zone, his area of expertise and specialty without adequate preparation and guidance risks becoming incompetent in a new position. So we have seen.

That brings me to this new crop of candidates for the Liberian presidency (elections 2003). It is my view that some of these fine people are simply too egotistical to believe they are entitled to become president not by virtue of their track records of public accomplishment or performance, but simply because after performing at their levels of competence, they now feel entitled to promotion within the hierarchy. According to the principle, many people who reach their levels of competence and yet crave promotions risk reaching a level of incompetence and eventually super incompetence.

Here is my advice: It is time we move away from the leadership style that emphasizes strong or charismatic individuality as a basis for qualification. Does it pay to have a leader who has a strong and charismatic personality? Yes. But what Liberia needs now is a leader who will have the managerial ability and desire to assemble a diverse group of people to build strong institutions. Someone who will be humble enough to realize that it will take collective effort to rebuild our nation. The country needs someone who will accept the fact that there are three branches of government that need to function independently to obtain credibility. One cannot run them all effectively in a democracy.

So as you look forward to entering the race, please remember the keyword is teamwork. A team consisting of people with diverse areas and levels of expertise cannot be overemphasized. Secondly, an atmosphere must be created conducive to creative and independent working conditions. Anyone who thinks he or she can single handedly turn that country around based on the strength of his/her personality or competence risks reaching the level of incompetence and eventually the level of super incompetence. Don't forget the Peter Principle. We don't need another dictator. Good luck.

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