Porter Goss and the Reverse Peter Principle

Julian Sanchez, rather tongue-in-cheek, passes along Matt Gunn‘s report that Rep. Porter Goss, appointed recently to be the next CIA Director, has said that he’s unqualified to be a CIA officer:

It is true I was in CIA from approximately the late 50’s to approximately the early 70’s. And it’s true I was a case officer, clandestine services officer and yes, I do understand the core mission of the business. I couldn’t get a job with CIA today. I am not qualified. I don’t have the language skills. I, you know, my language skills were romance languages and stuff. We’re looking for Arabists today. I don’t have the cultural background probably. And I certainly don’t have the technical skills, uh, as my children remind me every day, ‘Dad you got to get better on your computer.’ Uh, so, the things that you need to have, I don’t have.

While this is rather amusing, Goss’ inability to serve as an agent has virtually nothing to do with his ability to lead the agency. As Hit-and-Run commentator Wilson observes,

This seems akin to me to Mike Ditka saying that he’s completely unqualified to play tight end in the NFL today–the game has changed so much, and he is really freakin old. Even though he played quite well 30 years ago or whatever. It’s quite a different thing to say that Iron Mike can’t coach in the NFL because of this. clearly the skill set is not just a little different, it is massively, incredibly different. What possible similarity is there between a field agent and the head of the CIA in terms of duties? About the same similarity as between head coach of a football team and starting tight end–almost nil, except you’re on the same field.

Quite right. Years ago, Lawrence Peter put out a book entitled The Peter Principle. The eponymous thesis was that in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their “level of incompetence.” The rationale is that we choose people for leadership based on their ability to perform a lower level task–even though these skills are only tangentially related–and stop promoting them once they no longer perform well. Humorist Scott Adams countered years later with the The Dilbert Principle, a wagish take-off for the information age: “The most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage: management.” The rationale was that the contributions of the truly competent engineers could not be spared from their technical duties, so it was smarter to foist the less qualified but more attractive ones off to various executive grooming programs. There is some truth to both observations.

The Peter Principle works in reverse, too. Most senior managers are incompetent to perform the duties of those whom they supervise. This is not an aspersion on the capabilities of the managers but rather a natural outgrowth of specialization and division of labors, keystones of the modern economy. It is the exceptional CEO who is genuinely expert at anything going on at the lower levels of his corporation, let alone more than one thing.

Bill Gates is by all accounts a brilliant man but he is no longer competent to design service packs to correct the many flaws in the latest Windows operating system. Technology changes quickly and even a few months out of the trenches is enough to render a person obsolete. This observation holds true in all fields, not just the fast-moving world of technology. Contrary to the image created by science fiction programs, where the captain has the engineering schematics in his head and is an expert on all aspects of his ship, leaders in most endeavors must count on the skills of those below them. Even the most learned university presidents are, at best, masters of only their own discipline. Most aren̢۪t even that, having long departed the world of rigorous scholarship for that of university administration.

The expertise of the manager is management. Successful ones have a clear view of the big picture, delegate tasks to people who are more competent at their subject matter than they are, and oversee the enterprise. Bill Parcells was a decent college linebacker but was not good enough for the National Football League. He̢۪s been a rather successful head coach. Similarly, Bob Mueller is unqualified to conduct a homicide investigation and Tom Ridge would be a poor choice to defuse a bomb. Porter Goss would have a hard time infiltrating al Qaeda. He is perfectly qualified to run the CIA.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Intelligence
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Quite right. As I noted last night, too, I’m actually somewhat encouraged that Goss would make such an admission. At least it shows that he recognizes the changes in our security threats and the new skills required to tackle them. I would have been petrified if he had argued that his mastery of romance languages and subpar computer skills makes him the perfect candidate for a clandestine mission in Afghanistan.

  2. Mark Kraft says:

    During the making of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore interviewed Porter Goss, who Bush recently tapped to run the CIA. What did Porter Goss have to say regarding his qualifications?

    “It is true I was a case officer, clandestine services officer, and yes, I do understand the core mission of the business. But I couldn’t get a job with the CIA today. I am not qualified. I don’t have the language skills. You know, my language skills were romance languages and stuff. We’re looking for Arabists today. I don’t have the cultural background probably, and I certainly don’t have the technical skills, as my children remind me every day. “Daddy, Daddy, you gotta get better on your computer.” And so the things you need to have, I don’t have.”

    The video is located at http://www.michaelmoore.com/_media/qt/goss_2.mov.

  3. sqd says:

    I half-agree with you. I think the qualifications he mentioned were partly those that are needed by a field agent today.

    At the same time:

    “I don’t have the cultural background probably.”

    This is important.

    “I certainly don’t have the technical skills.”

    This is not so good. The chief needs technical skills as much as anyone. How can someone coordinate an agency that revolves around tech if he doesn’t even understand a modern personal computer? I think this is a bad sign.

    “I don’t have the language skills. I, you know, my language skills were romance languages and stuff.”

    Not a huge deal. I think ideally at least a bit of Arabic would be helpful; but if he has trustworthy people around him, not so key.

    However, he did say, “I couldn’t get a job with CIA today. I am not qualified.” He didn’t say “as a field agent.” He said “job,” so I find that at least mildly worrying.

    My most important complaint, however, is that we really should not be appointing a partisan guy right now amidst all of these accusations that intelligence was manipulated for political reasons. (And having tried my best to examine the intelligence info objectively, I can say without any hesitation that there was clearly political manipulation. Some of it within the CIA and some of it without.) America needs to do better than this. I hope Goss is the man for the job, but I can’t say I don’t have my concerns.