Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Peter Principle - Why Some Coaches Can't Get Ahead


I did a series on a book called The Holiness of God on my FCA-Devotional Blog and I stumbled upon something very interesting that related to the coaching profession. This book references another book called The Peter Principle by Dr. Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull that is somewhat of a classic in the business world. It says that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence in corporate structures. This was based on the observation that new employees typically start out at the bottom, and then as they display competence, they are promoted. Eventually, they reach a level in which they are no longer successful, and they are stuck at that level of incompetence. The net result is that most of the higher positions in corporate structures will all be filled with incompetents.

Not everyone gets caught in the trap of the Peter Principle. There are two categories of people who escape the trap: the super-incompetent and the super-competent. The super-incompetent person has no opportunity to move up to his level of incompetence because he is already at his level of incompetence. Competency is needed to be promoted, and the super-incompetent will never be promoted.

The real irony is found in the super-competent group. How does the super-competent person rise through the corporate structures to get to the top? He doesn’t. The reason is that he represents a massive threat to those above him. His bosses are frightened by him, fearful that he will take their jobs. He represents a clear and present danger to them that they will lose their seats of honor and power. The super-competent is more likely to be fired than the super-incompetent, because the boss can most likely find a job that the super-incompetent can do.

The super-competent person succeeds not by moving vertically up the corporate ladder but by making jumping moves from one organization to another, moving higher up as he goes.

It is easy for us to dismiss this theory. We can point to countless examples of people who have had meteoric rises in companies and reached the very top. There has been more than one CEO who started in the company as a stock boy. However, these dramatic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Whatever the true statistics are, the indisputable fact remains that there are numerous occasions where the super-competent person is frozen at a low level because he threatens those above him.

Case Study: Bill Walsh and Paul Brown

(The quotes are from David Harris’ excellent book about Bill Walsh, The Genius, and Bill Walsh’s book with Steve Jamison and Craig Walsh, The Score Takes of Itself):

Perhaps the best-known example in the football world of a super-competent coach being held back by his boss was that of Bill Walsh and Paul Brown. Sports Illustrated once said that Brown’s coaching career was “undoubtedly the most successful coaching career, at all levels, in the history of pro football.” He is the only coach to have a team named after him—the Cleveland Browns. He was known as “the greatest innovator in the history of the game,” as he was the first coach to have year-round assistants, to call plays from the sidelines, to catalog and analyze game film for game preparation, and to use 40 times and intelligence tests in evaluating players. Walsh said that Brown had “implemented a highly organized and structured format that transformed the game into the modern era.”

Brown gave Walsh the freedom to design the Cincinnati Bengals offense and he combined Brown’s old system with Sid Gillman’s Raider offense and his own innovations to create what would eventually become the West Coast Offense. But, there was a catch: Walsh was given the freedom to design the offense, but Brown took all the credit for it. Brown even had an elaborate game-day process that made it appear as if he were the one calling the plays: Walsh called the play from the booth through the headsets to an assistant coach, who told Brown, who then gave the play to a player, who ran on the field and gave the play to the QB. Walsh said, “Obviously, this was an impediment to swift communication and hurt us from time to time. Brown was willing to pay that price to convey the impression that he was running the whole show.”

This was an early indicator of Brown’s ego and insecurity, but Walsh didn’t mind too much as he was grateful for the opportunity to design and implement his own system of offense and for the chance to learn Brown’s approach to running an organization. “After four or five years with Brown, I realized I was ready to be a head coach,” said Walsh. “I didn’t make any secret of my feelings and, looking back on it, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was somehow threatening to Brown.”

Paul Brown was near the end of his illustrious coaching career and led Walsh to believe that he would take over as the Bengals head coach when he retired. Brown also had a philosophy of looking out for his own interests and the Bengal’s interests first. Other teams had inquired about hiring Walsh as a head coach in previous years, but Brown never told Walsh about these inquiries. Not only did he hide that information, but he purposely bad-mouthed Walsh to other teams, saying that he was “unfit” and “too soft” to become a head coach. “Brown had a fanatical desire to protect the Cincinnati franchise at all costs, even if it meant dishonestly denigrating my ability to other NFL owners and coaches,” said Walsh.

The turning point in the relationship came in the 1975 season, in what would be Paul Brown’s last as the Bengals head coach. The media finally figured out that Walsh, now in his eighth year in Cincinnati, was running the offense, and not Brown, and they also began to talk about Walsh’s bright future as a head coach. At the end of the year, Brown stepped down and named Bill Johnson, the team’s OL coach, as head coach. Walsh was stunned and hurt as he found out the news from the media and had to field their questions as the spokesman for the Bengals organization with Brown conveniently out of town at the time.

Walsh later said this about the Brown: “When push came to shove, Paul just couldn’t bring himself to turn it over to me. There was something like jealousy involved, mixed with a kind of resentment.” He called it “the greatest disappointment” of his life. Paul Brown had nothing to prove as a football coach, yet he must have felt that his reputation was diminished now that people knew that Walsh was running the offense instead of him. Maybe he blamed Walsh that the secret got out. Perhaps he was afraid that Walsh would become more successful as the Bengals head coach than he was. We can only speculate now but the fact that one coaching legend would go to such great lengths to hold back another future coaching legend is a fascinating piece of football history.

When Brown came back into town, his attitude was cold to Walsh and he even demanded that Walsh stay on as an assistant under Bill Johnson. He told Walsh that he refused him to leave. Walsh told him that his contract was up in a week and left to take a job with the Chargers. Brown then threatened to punish Walsh for leaving. Walsh recalled, “His vindictiveness was really something. He set about trying to destroy my career and discredit me any way he could.”

The Peter Principle at Work in the High School Coaching Profession

The example of Paul Brown is not an isolated incident; this type of behavior from a head coach to an assistant coach happens all the time. I believe that the Peter Principle holds true for the high school coaching profession now and that it will become an even bigger issue in the near future. I also believe that the principle applies for more than just the super-competent, and that it includes those who are super-competent in a given area. There are many areas of knowledge in the game of football, and coaches who are super-competent in one of these given areas as well as the overall super-competent will represent a clear and present danger to those above them. The net result is that these coaches will have no chance for promotion at their current schools.

The abundance of available knowledge makes it relatively easy today for an individual to become super-competent in a given knowledge area. In the previous days of high school coaching, an assistant coach was more of an apprentice who moved up in the ranks by paying his dues and learning everything from the head coach above him. There were books and some coaching clinics, but little to no coaching videos, college and NFL cut-ups, install dvds, and drill tapes that we enjoy today. There was no Coach, no football blogs, and no Internet to research from and quickly expand knowledge. The learning process was a much slower one than today and its scope was narrower in that it came primarily from one source, the head coach.

There are many older coaches today who moved up in the profession by this apprenticeship method. Most of these coaches are in head coaching positions by now. Working for these older head coaches are younger coaches who began their careers in the “explosion of knowledge era” and have had access to a wealth of information and opportunities, such as working coaching camps, which have allowed them to learn the game much faster than their head coach was able to. These younger coaches are also able to circumvent the need of the head coach’s assistance in gaining this knowledge, allowing them to progress faster than their head coach may feel comfortable with. Furthermore, these older coaches grew up in an era where the head coach was able to largely control how fast the assistant was allowed to progress, and it must seem strange that they now cannot enjoy the same power over their assistants in this “explosion of knowledge era.”

Not only are younger assistant coaches able to advance in knowledge quicker than their head coach was able to, in many areas they are able to exceed the knowledge of their head coach. All of these factors can contribute to fear, insecurity, jealousy, and animosity. The assistant can forget about trying to move up where he is at, because he will represent a threat to the head coach’s power.

The Peter Principle says that the net result will be that most of the higher positions will all be filled with incompetents. For our profession, that means that more than half of all high school head coaching positions are filled with incompetents who are many stuck at that level; although in areas of the country with greater accountability and higher pay, such as south Georgia and Texas, I don’t think an incompetent can survive that long. If Paul Brown, one of the greatest coaches of all time, felt insecure and threatened, the effect will be even worse for those coaches who are incompetent or barely competent.

This is the Peter Principle at play in the high school football coaching profession and it is quite common today as there are quite a few older coaches in the twilight of their coaching careers who are trying to hold on to their power long enough until they can reach retirement. This conflict is largely between “new school” coaches trying to move up in the profession via their knowledge superiority and “old school” coaches trying to use their power, position, and influence to keep them from ever moving up.

Interesting enough, I have also found that it’s not just older coaches who can feel insecure and jealous; the Peter Principle can come into play from coaches who are the same age but are at different coaching levels (Head Coach, Coordinator, or Position Coach), but the coach at the higher level feels a bit insecure and jealous of the knowledge and abilities of the lower level coach and do their best to make sure they are not able to move up.

I’ve been pretty harsh on the older coaches (although most of the ones to whom this applies don’t read football blogs anyways), now a word for the younger coaches: Just because you have coached for a few years and you just got your hands on the latest and greatest coaching dvd does not mean that you are ready to run a program anytime soon. There is still something to be said for paying your dues and the value of coaching experience. This requires humility, which is a rare trait in younger coaches. There are far too many coaches who have been coaching for five years or less and know a few things but arrogantly think they know it all (I have certainly been guilty of this myself). The knowledge that these coaches do have blinds them to how little they truly know. These coaches may be super-competent in one area, but they really are super-incompetent because they are ignorant in their overall knowledge of the game and especially of their own weaknesses as coaches.

Advice for Younger Coaches

1. Hook up with the future Head Coach on your staff:

“Peter's book unabashedly champions finding a patron within the organization who will provide the ‘pull’ necessary to create job opportunities for the competent person wishing to advance. On the other hand, he thinks ‘push’ strategies—that is, self-initiative and self-promotion—have been given too much emphasis. He claims that no amount of push can overcome an employee who is on the rung of the ladder above, and push might be interpreted by superiors as not having focus in the current job.”

2.  Competent bosses evaluate employees based on productivity, but incompetent bosses do not:

“He states that a superior who has reached his level of incompetence is likely to evaluate on the basis of his inputs such as promptness, neatness, and courtesy to his superiors, internal paper work, conformity to rules and so on. Peter says that in such a situation, internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service. This Peter calls as the `Peter's Inversion'.”

“Also if we assume that most "organizational men" seek out and tend to rise in a hierarchy they will do their best to adapt to the requirements of the organization no matter how perverted they are. If the principle requirement for rising in a particular hierarchy is "brown-nosing", then the men who have selected this hierarchy to rise in will do it. If long work hours is what it takes, then a certain number of men will exhibit the characteristics necessary to fulfill this requirement.”

3.  Don’t ever let your boss know you’re smarter than he is:

“From Peter and Hull’s The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969):
‘Employees in the two extreme classes–the super-competent and the super-incompetent–are alike subject to dismissal. They are usually fired soon after being hired, for the same reason: that they tend to disrupt the hierarchy. This sloughing off of extremes is called Hierarchal Exfoliation.’”

“When I first started working, in my teens, my father explained the Peter Principle to me during many informal chats. Now that he’s long gone, I realize the importance of his message: Don’t ever let your boss know you’re smarter than them.”

“In practice, the way the best of us are exfoliated is to creatively conflate (blend) our super-competence into a super-incompetence, for the HR department’s legal files. So, if you really like your job, feign stupidity and stay under the radar.”

“Otherwise, you too will be exfoliated.”

4.  Learn to play the game:

“If you’re truly competent, you must guard against being assassinated on your way up the ladder. Choose your battles carefully, don’t be perceived as a threat, be seen as a team player, and be viewed as very competent but not supercompetent. In other words, this is a game you must learn to play and play to win.”


Let’s review what we found from the Internet. 1. Hooking up with a future Head Coach on your staff is a great way to advance your career. 2. Incompetent bosses do not evaluate based on productivity, but on conformity. I would never recommend anyone to kiss butt, but do be aware of what your boss thinks is important. 3. Don’t ever let your boss know you’re smarter than he is. If you are humble, you can eliminate most of these problems by making sure to try not to show off your knowledge and cause your boss to dislike you. 4. Learn to play the game. Keep yourself from being assassinated by being a humble team player and don’t look to show off what you know.

Jumping moves up from one organization to another are the only way for the super-competent (or the super-competent in one area) to move up in the coaching ranks, but that can be difficult if the head coach is vindictive and bent on keeping an individual from ever moving up. Sometimes a coach will not be able to make a jumping move upwards to another school. A lateral move or even a step down may be needed to get out of a bad situation.

Probably my favorite character to read about in the Bible is Joseph. He was a victim of the Peter Principle. Psalm 105:19 says about him, “Until the time came to fulfill His Word, the Lord tested Joseph’s character.” That’s an understatement. When he was young, Joseph’s jealous older brothers hated him so much that they were about to kill him, but instead sold him into slavery where he was taken to Egypt. He was sold to a rich man named Potiphar. God was with Joseph and he prospered in all he did and found favor with Potiphar, and Joseph was eventually promoted all the way up until he was head over the entire household.

Joseph finally got his break…or so it seemed. Potiphar’s wife wanted to have sex with Joseph, who refused. Finally she caught Joseph by his garment, and it ripped off as he escaped. Potiphar’s wife cried “rape,” and Joseph was thrown in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Joseph interpreted a dream for the king’s cup bearer, who was also in prison, but Joseph told him he would soon get out. Joseph said, “Don’t forget to return the favor and help me when you get out,” but sure enough the cup bearer forgot. It wasn’t until two years later that he remembered Joseph, and gave him the chance to interpret a dream for Pharaoh. Joseph not only interpreted the dream and foretold that a great drought would soon come, he advised Pharaoh to store surplus grain during the years of abundance that came before the drought. Pharaoh was so impressed that Joseph went immediately from prison to second-in-charge over all of Egypt and he was able to use position of power to save an entire country and his own family from the great famine.

Was Joseph really a victim of the Peter Principle? He was in the short-term, but not when you look at the end result. God used adversity to teach Joseph the integrity and skills that he needed. God still does the same thing today, even for football coaches. Look at Bill Walsh. He faced adversity like Joseph did, but what was meant to destroy him made him into a better coach. I often wonder if Walsh would have made the same impact on our profession had he not went through the adversity that he did. He set up a program with the 49ers to help train and give opportunities to minority coaches, which undoubtedly was fueled by a desire to help others in the way that Paul Brown did not help him. If Walsh had taken an easier road to success, he would not have been able to relate to and empathize with the plight of minorities, likely denying Tony Dungy and Mike Tomlin of their opportunity to become a head coach in the National Football League and to go on to win a Super Bowl.

Drew Brees talks about the value of adversity in his book Coming Back Stronger: “From my perspective, it’s when the rug gets pulled out from under you that you really find your calling in life. Those defining moments don’t have to be tragedies.” He adds, “I really believe adversity is a path to opportunity. But sometimes it’s difficult in the moment to see that God has a bigger vision for the future than you can grasp. It may be years before you can look back and appreciate the journey God has taken you on. And usually, it’s one you wouldn’t have chosen.”

The Bible says to rejoice in adversity because of what it will produce as its end result. Definitely, this is easier said than done. If the Peter Principle represents your current situation or you find yourself in a rut in your coaching career, here’s the advice I can offer, for what it’s worth:

Focus on becoming the best coach and person that you can be, spend more time with your family and loved ones and appreciate the blessings you do have instead of worrying about what you do not have. Serve the players you coach and help them to become young men, for joy comes in service and in helping others succeed. Finally, remember the end result of what adversity will produce and have faith that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.  

And when you finally do get your chance, kick butt. The adversity of the past will make your success all the sweeter.

If you care to read, these Bible verses are encouraging:

1 Peter 1:6:
6 “So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while.”

Romans 5:3-4:
3 “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. 4 And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”

Hebrews 12:2b-4:
2 “…Because of the joy awaiting Him, He endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now He is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. 3 Think of all the hostility He endured from sinful people;[c] then you won’t become weary and give up. 4 After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.”

Feel free to comment or share any experiences that you think would benefit others.

Lots of great articles here lately.  Brophy with Coverage: It's Academic and Unbreakable Fire Zone.

Deuce with The Strong Safety in the 46 Bear and the 46 Nickel Defenses and Something Shared.

Chris at Smart Football with Combining Tom Osborne's Nebraska Offense with Chip Kelly's Oregon Offense and Playcalling Doesn't Have to be Difficult.

Coach W with Human Computer Post of the Week and Treat Goal-Line Defense as a Special Team.

Coach B Dud talks about  the Snag Concept and Play-Action Pass Pro

Coach Hjorth with Two-A-Days Tips.

GridNotes is a good way to keep up with blogs and it has some good articles of its own as well.


  1. EXCELLENT article! Coach, you've outdone yourself here. Great job, and the kind of reading I NEEDED right now. Thanks for all you do!


  2. Great job...good information

  3. Very interesting take, Coach....excellent article

  4. Man, I just got off the phone with some of the old coaches that were still left where I was at and OMG, the Peter Principle is in full effect there. I was let go (actually resigned) with 4 other coaches out of 7, now there is only 1 left from original 7, and a total of only 4 coaches for both varsity and JV. The 3 years I was there our numbers in the fall were 73, 78, 89 (total out for varsity and JV). They have 40 out as of today, the 1st day of fall camp. That's bad, and it's all b/c somebody at the top was incompetent. Well, looks like the grass ain't always greener...


  5. Yeah, it often has to hit rock bottom for the powers that be to figure out there might be a problem. It sounds like it was good you got out when you did. If it's a ship with holes in it, it's probably best to quit trying to bail out the water and just get off and let it sink.