Contrary Peter Principle (Updated)

Peter Principle: A colloquial principle of hierarchiology, stated as "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." Formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his 1968 book The Peter Principle, the principle pertains to the level of competence of the human resources in a hierarchical organization. The principle explains the upward, downward, and lateral movement of personnel within a hierarchically organized system of ranks.

Matt Bennett writes in Third Way Dispatch (The Peter Pandemic Takes Its Toll: H.R. McMaster is Passed Over) of a type of reverse Peter Principle where genuinely gifted and brilliant public servants who are kept far below the level to which they should ascend.

... There are, no doubt, scores of such talents in the federal bureaucracy, held down from their rightful rise by political calculation, petulance or oversight. But one recent and egregious example is the Pentagon's failure to promote (for a second time) Army Colonel H.R. McMaster.

Now you may be thinking, wasn't it H.R. McMaster that led the pacification of Tal Afar, an operation so successful that Bush devoted an entire speech to it just last year? Didn't I read about McMaster's brilliant strategy in a long New Yorker piece about him? Wasn't it McMaster who won a Silver Star in the Gulf War, leading troops so bravely and well that Tom Clancy wrote it up? And surely it was McMaster who's PhD dissertation became a hugely influential book, Dereliction of Duty, that the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs made required reading for senior military types?

Well brace yourself -- the answer to all of your questions is yes. McMaster is a brilliant tactician, a decorated hero, a soldier's soldier, and a master of the very kind of war we're fighting in Iraq -- the counterinsurgency. In fact, he's back in Iraq now, helping soon-to-be-fall-guy David Petraeus try to fend off further disaster. But somehow McMaster's "superiors" -- the suits at the Pentagon who helped bring us the Fiasco that McMaster is attempting to clean up -- have decided that he isn't flag officer material...

Update: From the link (Colonel John Boyd: To Be Or To Do?) provided by Claymore in comments below:

Of all the things Boyd wrote or said, we probably get the most requests for his "To be or to do?" invitation. Although Boyd associated with many junior officers during his Air Force career, there were a few, perhaps half a dozen, that he had such respect for that he invited them to join him on his quest for change. Each one would be offered the choice: Be someone -- be recognized by the system and promoted -- or do something that would last for the Air Force and the country. It was unfortunate, and says something about the state of American's armed forces, that it was rarely possible to do both.

Boyd's biographer, Robert Coram, collected the invitation from an officer who got it and selected the "to do" option, and he confirmed its essence from several others.

"Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road," he said. "And you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go." He raised his hand and pointed. "If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments." Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction.

"Or you can go that way and you can do something -- something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won't have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference." He paused and stared into the officer's eyes and heart. "To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?

Update 2: In response to an e-mail that questioned blaming the administration and "pretending to know more than selection boards is something again" for COL McMaster's non-selection to BG - I wrote this:

Matt Bennett of Third Way Dispatch is the one who blames the administration for COL McMaster not pinning on BG...

While I agree that "pretending to know more than selection boards is something again" I submit that many expressing opinions on this matter have at least some knowledge of selection boards. They have served on selection boards and, of course, have been either promoted or passed by the same. Opinions on the merits of this recent BG board are, in my humble opinion, informed.

Moreover, this issue goes well beyond one Soldier not advancing to flag. It has a lot to do with perception and I maintain this non-selection sends the wrong signal to the Iron Majors, Captains and Lieutenants - the one-third who "get it" and another third who are trying to get it when it comes to COIN. They are the ones who are debating on whether to stay in the Army or Marine Corps or move on. I mention Marine Corps here because I have received e-mails from Marines who are as disappointed by this as their Soldier brothers-in-arms.

COL McMaster bordered on "rock star" status to many of them - they studied his works and followed his career and he provided inspiration that developed into hope that we still might turn OIF around even with the missteps of earlier years.


H/T to Phillip Carter - Intel Dump (E-mail)

H/T to Noah Shachtman - Wired Magazine's Danger Room (Link)

Discuss at Small Wars Council - No happy campers here...

More Discussion - At World Affairs


Is the Pentagon Anti-Petraeus? - Time Magazine's Swampland (Joe Klein)

H.R. McMaster Passed Over - Reverse Peter Principle? - Outside the Beltway (James Joyner)

Col. McMaster - The Washington Monthly's Political Animal (Kevin Drum)

Stunning News on a Non Promotion - PrairiePundit (Merv Benson)

Is McMaster's Non-Selection Army Seppuku? - ROFASIX (NOTR)

They're Breaking My Army - Armchair Generalist (Jason Sigger)

You, Sir, are no Vinegar Joe Stilwell - Tapped (Robert Farley)

Your rating: None


I hope this is one of those crystallizing events that make it clear (enough) to all concerned that stupidity has been given enough rope to hang itself.

Meanwhile, McMaster is in tight with Petraeus and directly affecting events on the ground. I assume and wager that he is being given far more influence and leverage than your standard LTC job description provides.

And his day may well come. It is not unprecedented, e.g., for the CIC to intervene in such matters, especially in wartime. One can hope -- or maybe even suggest and demand!

Hey Dave,

Moreover, I stand by my opinion that this issue seriously affects perceptions - especially those of the junior and mid-level officers dedicated to winning the long war and are at the tipping point on whether to stay or bolt. Many of them looked to McMaster as a glimmer of hope in these most difficult times end Quote

I don't have a problem with the GOs - most I've met have been pretty amazing people. Most have been people who I've admired for shouldering a great deal of responsibility and carrying it far better then I could hope.

It is the system that I think needs to be brought in line. I've said before that we are both bureaucratic and conservative and that makes change very difficult. I guess that could be seen by some as a good thing if you believe that by sacrificing getting it too far right, you can avoid getting it too far wrong. However I think that taking a planning maxim and applying it too leadership selection is a poor choice.

We've spent an awful lot of money talking about building leaders that reflect the attributes of $20 words, but when it comes down to it I personally don't see much happening that reflects investment in human capital. Sure we see ACS talk, and some others, but most of it comes with a pretty heavy price tag. I've not seen much in the way of "new". When I read that COL McMasters had been passed over ( and I think this was not his BZ, but his first look - RTK could say for sure) it sort of hit me. The first time I got that feeling was when I looked at a BN CMD slate and saw some guys I would not want to follow slated in MTO&E CMD slots and some I'd follow anywhere in TDA alternates (& yes TDAs need good folks too) - it hit me then that there is no real HR strategy that identifies the very best people to do the most important things - which is when I made some decisions about what was most important to me - after all if these incredible leaders had sacrificed so much only to be put at the bottom of the pile I was not going to ask my family to sacrifice the ways theirs had. I'd always believed that the only place such a large organization can really look after its people is at the lower tactical levels (BDE & below), at the higher levels it more akin to see a hole fill a hole, but then I knew it as gospel. Sometimes we put round pegs in round holes on purpose, but mostly when that happens it seems to be luck.

I'm not sure we can really excel by perpetuating this system. We struggle to come up with good ideas such as revamping the OER system, or rearranging the money, but in the end there are "must do's" that trump the "need to do's" that we just can't get past. This leaves the good ideas with no real staying power, and after awhile they just come across as another hollow slogan. I know people can be petty, but I think COL McMaster's case is more representative of a system that cannot consistently identify and promote excellence.

What I have not figured out is if it can be fixed. It may not be a problem, it might be a condition. The only way I can see us fixing this problem is to make recruiting and retaining the most talented people and their families the priority. This means everything from the list of incentives that DAGGER 6 had listed to questioning our system of promotion at all levels. In another post somebody had mentioned the issues with LTs, CPTs and MAJs. If its a condition, then its a whole nother ball game, and will take some real external efforts to change - like LTC Yingling's thoughts.

I'm sort of past wondering about how this sort of thing applies to me as I've already made up my mind, but I do worry about allot of kids I've led, and I'm even wondering about what kind of Army my own kids will inherit. We had an interesting conversation the other night about who in America is willing to serve. We better be thinking about that one real hard, or one day we're going to wake up and "the next greatest generation" is going to say "hey why don't you take a turn on the wall for awile."


What does this say about inspiring self-development into Army "pentathletes"?

How about "we'd like you to do it as long as you don't rock any boats, challenge the accepted notions, you complete it on your own time, and are willing to be less then competetive, etc.?"


I've gotten e-mails and read comments that - oh well - all colonels are A++ and it is kind of like luck of the draw on who makes it and who does not. Seems to me that this is peacetime promotion board (like there should even be such an animal) talk. Eventually we will know who made the cut and who did not and hopefully that will shed some light on this BS non-selection.

I've also been told that because SWJ and others have made this an issue we are potentially pissing off the brass and may be hurting COL McMasters' future chances. Many are the same people who say with a straight face "you don't understand the selection process and what the board members were presented". Yea right.

Both are smoke-screens to stifle any debate on WARTIME leadership and the type of commanders this country deserves.

Moreover, I stand by my opinion that this issue seriously affects perceptions - especially those of the junior and mid-level officers dedicated to winning the long war and are at the tipping point on whether to stay or bolt. Many of them looked to McMaster as a glimmer of hope in these most difficult times.