Peter’s Principle: In a hierarchy, an employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence.

In other words, you will be promoted only if you are capable enough.

Take this pyramid.


A person starting at level 6 will slowly climb to the top till he reaches level 1. The real question is how many people are capable of reaching level 1 from 6. Some stop at 6, some at 5, but the reality is that very few reach level 3 or 2 and literally none to level 1. Now, apply the same to administration or management. It simply means that for persons starting as ground level workforce, it’s very hard to reach the top levels – most of them will be spent fuel by the time they reach there. A person reaching the top should have multiple qualities, primary of them being he is too good to be a spent force and the next, the level of competition he faces at the lower levels is lesser.

As a spin off, I can pose a few scenarios –

1. What if there is none in the hierarchy who can reach level one or two?

2. What happens if the lower levels get overcrowded?

3. What happens if I create a lateral entry at, say, level 3?

Let’s take it one by one.

If there is none in the hierarchy who can reach level one, or two it’s going to be a time bound or vacancy based promotion irrespective of your personal capabilities. This means the layers at the top will lose direction and it is going to be a sudden death or a slow and steady decay. This scenario is seen mainly in corporate world when the the supposed to be capable leadership is either not able to maintain it’s position in the market or is not able to gauge the direction of the wind. One of the greatest and recent examples is Nokia. It was not able to dent the growth of Android and is almost out of the market. Let’s see what happens in governance. In a dictatorship or crony capitalism, we see that those on the good books are promoted, not those who are capable. A democracy bypasses this hierarchy aiming for level one and two directly. It’s a chance whom we will get in level one. However, in a democracy, we have a parallel pyramid of real talent who work as advisors.

If the levels at the lower levels are overcrowded and if there is no place at the top, we tend to create levels below us, giving the perception that we are getting promoted. But, the reality is that I am staying in the same place, my title is getting changed, I am made to handle more people, but I am still the same according to my capability level. It’s something like, I am a Test Lead today, leading a team of 10. Three years down the line, because I can’t climb up, I rechristen myself as a Test Manager and call those ten below me as Test Leads. They will be given 10 each – which is a promotion to them. Climbing up in the hierarchy, if I don’t have any capabilities, the only task I will be given is to lead more people and nothing more – it’s as if I am a test lead with titles changing, but always handling ten people. This is mostly a corporate phenomenon where you will be seeing new job titles out of no where.

Too less people climb up till level two or one if they start from level six – either there is no capability or there is no time. This is a problem known all over history. Hence, an alternate process is created where a lateral injection is made at level 3 or 4. This is this concept of Civil Services or Administrative Services in governance or the concept of MBA. Here, we see people directly having access to the top. They are selected based on their capability at Level 3 directly. This means the chance that they become spent force before reaching the top is considerably less. This is one great strength of aristocracy where the best are selected for that posts.

Look at all this, we find that democracy has got this tendency of promoting the mediocre over the talented – there is no real qualification for the actually elected and the advisor layer is at the mercy of the elected. All works great if the administrators are given the right to decide. But, the reality is that whatever the case, democracy ticks simply because it gives an opportunity to all instead of a select few.