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Former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier
Associated Press/Photo by Tom Uhlman
Former Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier

The Peter Principle and the NFL

Sports

Black Monday is not a big shopping day and it doesn’t refer to a stock market crash. It’s the day after the final day of the National Football League’s regular season. It’s called “black” because it is a day of doom for several head coaches every year. This year, four coaches lost their jobs (Washington’s Mike Shanahan, Detroit’s Jim Schwartz, Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier, and Tampa Bay’s Greg Schiano), with one more not even making it to Monday (Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinki). While five firings may not sound like many, it’s just over 15 percent of all NFL head coaches and. At the company where I work, that translates into 235 people losing their jobs on a single day.

Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull aren’t sports analysts. In fact, they aren’t even alive. But in 1969 they published a book called The Peter Principle, which explained that in a performance-based management system employees will “rise to the level of their incompetence.” Basically, anyone good at their job will get promoted until they’ve been promoted to a position they can’t be good at. And every year the NFL proves the accuracy of the Peter Principle.

Only one of the coaches fired this year (Shanahan) had an established record of NFL success. All the others had recently been assistant coaches or college coaches. Each had been offered one of the 32 best jobs in the world for a football coach and, naturally, accepted. It’s the pinnacle of the profession, and a decision anyone would make in their own field. In a sense, getting fired was not their fault but rather a reflection on those who hired them.

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When the stakes are highest, those responsible for selecting leaders ought to be at their most diligent. Tendencies like the Peter Principle must be avoided at all costs. Of course, finding the right person for such a high-profile job can be difficult, but that’s no excuse for falling into hiring patterns known to be faulty since 1969 or earlier.

Any healthy organization, from a football team to a bank to a church, must know its own culture and identity. It must know the specific goals and objectives it wants to obtain and the personnel it already has. And then it must put leaders in place who can create and execute the necessary processes to meet the objectives. This is not a numerical probability game where previous success automatically predicts future results.

What less successful NFL teams lack, along with many other struggling organizations, is that clear sense of what they are and where they are going. It’s easy to say, “We want wins,” or “We want growth,” but if the organization can’t define the pieces and the process, then putting leaders in place is mere guesswork. Employees promoted to coach, CEO, or pastor with no consideration to organizational culture become victims of their past success and the overall lack of clarity. They’re the ones whose names we hear on Black Monday or who wash out of their jobs. And then the cycle begins all over again.  

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