The “Peter Principle” Revisited

Organisations are still mistaking functional ability as a sign of leadership potential says Justin Hughes, former Red Arrows pilot and founder of Mission Excellence.

 ‘In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’ says the Peter Principle. Perhaps that’s why recent research has suggested:

  • Leadership is a skill in short supply and a lack of leadership often leads to

  • Poor succession planning and performance (wiping £2bn a year from the FTSE 350)

  • 41% of workers have no confidence in their senior managers

  • 85% of large companies run leadership development programmes and cite a lack of good leadership in the UK, with the primary lack being people management ability.

Justin Hughes draws on his experience in the RAF, and now as head of organisational performance consultancy Mission Excellence, to suggest we’re getting leadership just about as wrong as we can;

“Often potential corporate leaders are identified because they excel in a technical area and are then taught leadership skills. Functional excellence seems to magically imply leadership effectiveness.

The RAF provides a contrast. If you join you probably want to fly a plane. But you have to wait six months to get to that point: for the first six months you are immersed in issues of brand, leadership and follower-ship. This is even truer in the Red Arrows. We assume the 35-40 applicants a year can fly. The week-long selection process focuses on informal judgment of applicants’ behavioural skills. Although the skill bar is high, the team prefers someone who’s only just there but with excellent behavioural ability rather than vice versa.

In my view organisational leadership development is the wrong way round: behavioural skills should come first. Waiting to develop all of these skills at a senior level is a harder “nut to crack”. Development must be more evenly invested.

Employers should be putting more emphasis on embedding leadership values and behaviour at junior and middle management levels. It is a fundamental step in identifying potential and making sustainable improvements to organisational performance and leadership effectiveness.”

 Key Talking Points

  •  What makes good leadership?

  •  What parallel lessons should be taken from the RAF?

  •  How does this translate to the corporate world?

  •  How should organisations create a sustainable approach to leadership development?


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