The Dennis Principle

Cover of "How to Get Rich: One of the Wor...

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In 1969, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote the book, The Peter Principle and since then the observation that every employee tends to rise to his or her level incompetence has been synonymous with the title of their book.

The idea is that folks tend to perform competently at some levels and then are rewarded with promotion until they eventually reach a level where they are no longer competent.

If only that were true.  In my experience, competence is not what is rewarded with promotion.

I think Felix Dennis describes the scene more accurately in How to Get Rich, when he discusses delegation (p. 186):

It used to be surprising to me why so many people appeared to have a problem with delegating.  But I finally figured it out, and the answer isn’t a pretty one.  It concerns our old bugaboo, ownership.

If you own a company and that company’s purpose is to make you wealthy, you will be content, delighted even, for any amount of glory to go to anyone who works there, providing you get the money.  It is in your best interests to delegate whenever it makes sense in such circumstances.

If you do not own the company, or any part of it, then it is possible you are only a senior manager because you like power. It is not true of everyone, of course. But often enough. You like bossing people about.  You enjoy telling them what to do.  If that is the case, then you might be understandably reluctant to delegate real power or opportunity, in case the person you delegate to proceeds to excel. This, in turn, may well demonstrate to the rest of the company what a ho-hum manager you really are.

This is a warped way of thinking. But I am convinced it lies behind much of the reluctance to delegate I have encountered in my business life.  I used to be surprised at this reluctance of others, both in and out of my own companies.  Now I’m not surprised at all.

Bossy people and glory hounds are mostly interested in building a power base so they can have yet more people to boss about. It’s pitiful and a little sad, but we have all seen it.  We saw it in school. We saw it in the playground.  We saw it in college. And we saw it in our first job. If you are observant, you have been seeing it nearly all your life.

This type of managerial toad will often talk about training and delegation in sepulchral tones, but then, as the old proverb tells us, “the Devil can quote scripture for his own purpose.”

You can’t deal with bossy, puffed-up sods who won’t train you and won’t delegate.  You can only move departments or change your place of work.  It isn’t worth the time to do anything else.

Based on my experience, such folks tend to reward inputs (did you do it the way I said to do it?) instead of outputs (was it successful ?).  They somehow manage to assume credit for successes (which they then don’t easily share) and masterfully distance themselves from failures. They are expert horn tooters.

I’ve often scratched my head at the behavior.  It seems counterproductive.  But silly me, I viewed it from the owners perspective for some reason.  As Dennis lays it out, it makes perfect sense.

What’s really sad to me is that this is the type of leadership that has been taught to us since we were young.  I often struggled when myself or my friends attended leadership development camps or training.

My intuition told me that even the leaders of the camps didn’t really have a grasp on true leadership.  What they discussed was more of the bossy/glory hound leadership — how to stand tall and speak with authority and how to make yourself look busy, even when you don’t know what you’re doing.  It’s about managing up and improving your image.

I’ll add my own observation to Dennis’.  These types of leaders tend to gravitate to organizations that are already successful.  They say things like, “we are professional managers that will take over where the founders left off” and “we can take the business to the next level”.

In reality, it’s the organization’s prior success that allows it entertain such leadership for awhile.

I prefer Dennis’ style of leadership.

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3 thoughts on “The Dennis Principle

  1. I agree with your thoughts here and I positively love your blog! I’ve bookmarked it so that I can come back & read more in the future. Your post is very interesting. I’ve read your blog for few days now and I trully enjoy your blog. Thank you for your great work!

  2. Pingback: Daily Leadership Thought #76 – Beware of the “Peter Principle” « Ed Robinson's Blog

  3. Pingback: Leadership | Our Dinner Table

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