Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Peter Principle Revisited

It’s an overcast Virginia afternoon under a sky that promises rain but reneges. We are having lunch, a dozen or so work friends and their spouses, most of us former employees of a UN organization that in decades past made a difference.  These are informed people from a variety of lands, well-traveled and still traveling, civil servants whose careers involved working with a plethora of cultures. 

It’s been a few days since Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested for sexually assaulting a maid at a Sofitel in New York. DS-K, up until that moment, was being groomed to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency of France. A top player in the rarified atmosphere of highest-level financial wizardry, DS-K was credited for making the Washington, DC-based IMF a player again after the institution was largely marginalized during the Bush years. In recent times, his organization has played a large role in dealing with the economic debacle that has shaken both the developed and developing world.

Following the arrest as he was headed back to Paris in a first-class Air France seat, DS-K was refused bond as a flight risk, and spent a couple of days on Ryker Island like a common convict.  

Think of it: powerful men seeking thrills... DS-K, Clinton, Kennedy, Gary Hart, Schwarzenegger,  too many Congressmen to bother mentioning and more preachers and televangelists than could fit on the head of a pin, all taking incredible career risks for a chance at quick and, of course, tawdry, sex.

Personally, I think we’re back to the Peter Principle.

You remember the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”  The Principle was formulated more than 40 years ago by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in a book of the same name, and while the authors at the time were talking about commerce and business, there is no reason to believe the notion can’t cross boundaries and find a home in politics, high finances, sports, and entertainment. Peter’s Corollary states that, “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out (his) duties.”  Humans, we know, are promoted based on their performances in their current jobs, as are politicians and other power-wielders. But often, the promotion (or election) is granted without the additional training needed to successfully perform new tasks and duties. That means a state legislator is not necessarily fit for national office, nor is a mayor ready to assume a state governorship.

Add to this the trappings of power—money, sexual opportunities, vast influence and a nascent feeling that one is above the rules of mere mortals (after all, one wouldn’t be where one is if one were not a superior being)—and you have the recipe for a debacle.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no solution.  In some instances, abuse of power may injure individuals with little impact on the whole. That, in itself, is also dangerous as it fosters an atmosphere of behavioral laissez faire. Maybe there should be moral IQ tests for anyone above a certain level, say, directorship or alderman. But then you’d have to test the testers too… I guess we’re stuck.

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