Porter Goss and the Reverse Peter Principle
It is true I was in CIA from approximately the late 50Ã¢€™s to approximately the early 70Ã¢€™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.Ã¢€™ 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 arenÃ¢€™t 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. HeÃ¢€™s 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.