Why Nothing Fails Like Success

The Peter Principle in the executive branch


Some of the Bush administration's more vehement critics see its failures as the result of a twisted worldview. Others see them as the product of powerlust and corruption. But watching Alberto Gonzales fumble his way through a Senate hearing last week suggested that neither ideology nor venality is to blame. The real problem lies in a long-forgotten phenomenon known as the Peter Principle, which says: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

That iron law of human organization came to light in a 1969 book by Laurence Peter, who theorized that if you do a job well, you are not likely to be left in that job but promoted to another one. If you do well in the next assignment, you will be promoted once again. Eventually, you will reach a job that is beyond your abilities, at which point you will no longer be promoted but left to exercise your ineptitude.

At the hearing, Gonzales gave the impression of someone with only passing involvement in his own life. He defended his decision to remove eight U.S. attorneys last year, but had serious trouble recalling why, or who came up with the names, or how the entire episode came about.

He made bizarre statements suggesting he had just awakened from an out-of-body experience: "I now understand that there was a conversation with myself and the president." He answered "I don't recall" and "I don't remember" to so many questions about the prosecutors that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina suggested the administration had simply "made up reasons to fire them."

You might have taken the attorney general for a fellow of feeble mind. But that can't be it. Gonzales, after all, graduated from Harvard Law School, made partner at a distinguished Texas law firm, and eventually became a justice of the Texas Supreme Court—where, the Los Angeles Times noted in 2001, "he developed a reputation as a thoughtful and ideologically moderate justice." If Gonzales is a dummy, then Gwyneth Paltrow is fat.

But as Peter noted, "for every job in the world, there is someone who can't do it." In Gonzales' case, that job is attorney general of the United States. You don't have to be a partisan Democrat to see he's in over his head. Last week, CNN quoted one "prominent Republican" as saying the interrogation of the hapless Gonzales was like "clubbing a baby seal."

Gonzales, alas, is far from being the only person in the administration who excelled in previous jobs only to reach his level of incompetence. I am on record praising Dick Cheney's selection as George Bush's running mate in 2000. As President Gerald Ford's chief of staff and as secretary of defense under the first President Bush, he had demonstrated sound judgment and a cool head in challenging situations.

He had the good sense, for example, to reject the idea of marching to Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war. "Once we had rounded him up and gotten rid of his government," Cheney said later, "then the question is what do you put in its place?" Only when he was elevated to the vice presidency did he start following orders transmitted through his dental fillings from the Death Star.

Harriet Miers had an excellent career as a lawyer, representing Microsoft and Disney and serving as president of the Texas bar association on her way to becoming White House counsel. She was so good at this last job that her boss decided she would make a swell addition to the Supreme Court. Her reward for capable and loyal service was to be exposed as pitifully unfit for a higher job, and to become a national synonym for mediocrity.

Unfortunately, there is no way for presidents or anyone to know when a talented performer will finally come up short. So, as Peter pointed out, it is up to each of us to avert being promoted too far through the use "creative incompetence"—such as parking in the boss's space, wearing too much perfume, hinting at a sordid private life or otherwise creating the impression that you've already reached the outer limits of your capacities.

Gonzales may wish today that back in Texas, he had occasionally showed up for work with stubble on his chin or lipstick on his collar. It would have saved him and the rest of us a lot of trouble.