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ATD Blog

Developing Leaders at Random


Mon Apr 30 2012


In an April 13 podcast of the National Public Radio (NPR) program “Science Friday,” Mark Abrahams, a columnist for The Guardian, shared that three Italian physicists, Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, developed a mathematical formula that demonstrates how organizations would be more efficient and better led if leaders were promoted at random. In other words, pulling names out of a hat, so to speak, produces better results than promoting people based on traditional means, such as through performance reviews, bottom line results, and/or tenure with the organization.

The foundation of their work is the Peter Principle, named for the Canadian psychologist Laurence J. Peter, which basically states, “Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he reaches his level of maximum incompetence.” As Abrahams shares, people can get promoted one level too far until they exceed their level of competence, which then leads to poor results. Organizations keep feeding “bad eggs” into the leadership pool and then they become top heavy with people who don’t know what they’re doing, while the good ones go on to do something else.


Abrahams then shares that in some follow-up work by the Italian physicists, they looked at democracies and make the case that it’s the same in politics: we’d be better off if politicians were also chosen at random. They hearken back to ancient Greece as an example when the legislature was formed by putting the names of all citizens into a lottery and making random selections from the pool. One could argue that ancient Greece didn’t do too badly as a civilization, though the modern version could use a little help with its finances. With the state of politics today, going this route may not be a bad idea.

Joking aside, this concept of random selection is intriguing to think about from a leadership development perspective. Will the pressure of filling leadership pipelines in the coming years lead to a philosophy that “any warm body will do,” even if the person is not qualified for the role? One would hope not, but it’s safe to say that we’ve seen plenty of incompetence, and certainly arrogance, throughout history of poor leaders contributing to the downfall of organizations.

The recent centennial of the sinking of the RMS Titanic is a tragic reminder of what happens when factors converge to produce a result: poor decision-making, arrogance, and a breakdown in communications have all proven to be significant factors in the disaster time and again. Whether the cause of the accident was the push to make the crossing as fast as possible, the error of sailing too far to the north in iceberg territory, the delay in sending distress calls, or even design flaws as some have noted, it’s interesting to wonder what the outcome may have been with different leadership in place at The White Star Line. Each of those factors involved a leader somewhere along the way approving plans and actions. Would random selection have made a difference? Oh, to have seen the performance appraisals of J. Bruce Ismay, the disgraced former White Star Line chairman and managing director who survived the tragedy, to know how he made it that far up the corporate ladder.

Over the years, especially while working in professional services, it’s been common to see people promoted due to their strong client relationships, technical skills, and ability to generate new business, only to see them struggle mightily with how to be a strong leader, let alone how to manage others. The good news is that these types of scenarios keep us workplace learning professionals employed. The not so good news is it’s a bit scary to think how many potentially incompetent leaders there are running organizations around the globe, if the Peter Principle is truly in effect, all because they are out of their element and doing work that is no longer aligned with their strengths or what they want to be doing day-to-day.

Regardless of the validity of the Peter Principle, it’s up to us to ensure that we do what we can to help organizations grow and thrive through being true business partners who can not only tie leadership development and talent management initiatives to strategy and results, but who can also recognize the need to treat each leader and potential leader as a valued individual with unique challenges and strengths.


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