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Is our misunderstanding of success setting us up for failure?

How the wisdom of King Solomon leads us where no man has gone before

Do you have a “boss from hell” story? If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, chances are you do.

A quick scan of the headlines suggests that the problem is getting worse, not better. Reports of managerial dysfunction, ethics violations, and workplace harassment pour in from every quarter. And even though bosses are being held more accountable, the number of incidents seems to grow day by day.

Considering how many leadership gurus populate the speaker circuit these days, you’d think that the quality of managers and administrators would be soaring, not sinking.

At least one Yale University finance professor believes she understands what’s going on. Speaking with NPR’s Shankar Vedantam, Kelly Shue deconstructed the current crisis in management by applying what has become known as the Peter Principle.

“The types of skills that lead to success at one level within the organizational hierarchy may not be the same types of skills that lead to success in the next level,” Professor Shue explained.


Back in 1968, no one knew for sure whether Dr. Laurence J. Peter was serious when he articulated his now-famous axiom: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. But half a century later, observation and experience leave little doubt that the Peter Principle is no joke.

In their recent study, Professor Shue and her colleagues, Alan Benson and Danielle Li, found that promotions are generally based on past performance rather than future indicators. Successful salespeople do not necessarily make successful administrators, just as capable financial and operational officers often flounder when elevated to the position of chief executive.

This might seem obvious. The problem, however, is one of fairness.

Hard work should be rewarded with greater opportunity, and positive contributions deserve acknowledgement in the form of higher position. It makes sense that talented, diligent, and successful employees are invited to climb the corporate ladder. Without that incentive, they might be less motivated to succeed in the first place.

But what if promoting them actually sets them up for failure? In a heartbeat, the win-win becomes a lose-lose. So what’s the solution?


One practical suggestion is to create a hierarchy of positions within each area of discipline, like senior salesperson. Another is to develop training programs that help the newly-promoted acquire the skills they need to shoulder a new set of responsibilities.

But the ultimate answer may lie in re-evaluating our definition of success. Of course, we look forward to the greater prestige of a titled position. But that promotion won’t serve us if we become second-rate conductors instead of top-flight members of the orchestra. Even worse, we may end up losing the sense of accomplishment we felt in a lower-tier job.

The attraction of promotion is enticing, even intoxicating. But the specter of power and position may be fleeting, especially if we find that our prior experience has not prepared us to move upward and that we are flailing about with no safety net below.

King Solomon understood this when he observed, “The one who tills his land will be satisfied with bread, but one who chases phantoms will find an empty heart.”

The true rewards of work are not power or prestige, nor even a paycheck. Of course, we need to get paid; but studies suggest that salary has little correlation to job satisfaction.

The most profound benefit of work is the sense of fulfillment and self-worth that comes from service to others and contributing to greater good. Without that, money and position quickly become hollow vessels, gilded on the outside but containing nothing of real value.

As with all his 3000-year-old lessons, King Solomon’s words remain more relevant than ever. Indeed, this message in particular resonates far into the future.

Students of pop-culture may remember Mr. Spock’s reproof to Admiral Kirk as they boldly traveled the galaxy: “It was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Starship captain is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”

Published in Jewish World Review

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