Hire Leaders for What They Can Do, Not What They Have Done

Fifty years have passed since the publication of The Peter Principle, but its rule still applies today. “In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties,” noted Laurence J. Peter, the educator behind this famous work. His theory postulates that most competent people are promoted until they reach a position that is above their skill level, at which point they cease to grow.



Academic studies show that promotions are still largely a reward for past performance, and that organizations continue to assume the attributes that have made someone successful so far will continue to make them successful in the future (even if their responsibilities change). This may explain why there are still a large number of incompetent leaders.


Organizations that wish to select the best people for leadership roles therefore need to change how they evaluate candidates. The next time you are filling a managerial position, ask yourself three questions:


1. Does the candidate have the skills to be a high-performing contributor or the skills to be an effective leader?

The performance level of individual contributors is measured largely through their ability, likability, and drive. Leadership, by contrast, demands a broader range of character traits, including high levels of integrity and low levels of dark-side behaviors born out of negative attributes likes narcissism or psychopathy.


The difference between these two skill sets explains why great athletes often end up being mediocre coaches (and vice versa), and why high performers often fail to succeed in leadership positions.


We all know that the most successful salespeople, software developers, and stockbrokers have exceptional technical skills, domain knowledge, discipline, and abilities to self-manage. But can those same skills be used to get a group of people to ignore their selfish agendas and cooperate effectively as a team? Probably not. Leaders do need to obtain a certain level of technical competence to establish their credibility, but too much expertise in a single area can be a handicap. Experts are often hindered by fixed mindsets and narrow views, which result from their years of experience. Great leaders, however, are able to remain open and to adapt, no matter how experienced they are. They succeed because they are able to continually learn.


This has been proved in many situations, particularly in the area of sales. A recent academic study of over 200 firms found that performance as a salesperson was negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager. If you promote your number one salesperson to management, you create two problems: You lose your top salesperson and you gain a poor manager.


2. Can I really trust this candidate’s individual performance measures?

The most common indicator of someone’s performance is a