After 8 years of Matt Millen minding his Lionel Trains whilst sleeping at the switch of the Lions franchise, we have heard the term “Peter Principle” over and over. Often, it is quoted as thus:
“An individual will rise to the level of their own incompetence.” Or similar phrasing.
It is used to describe what happens when someone who is very talented at what they do is promoted — time and again — until they are promoted to a point where they can be no better then mediocre due to a cap in their skills. Many of the starters for the Detroit Lions in their 0-16 season fell into this category. Many would have been great reserve players — role players, or special teamers. But they just weren’t cut out to be full time starters. (Coaching will come next — one thing at a time!)
To find out more on the Peter Principle and how it works (and can be avoided) look here. In football, unlike large corporations, you often see a fix to the Peter Principle at work — that is, if a person or individual rises above their level of competence, then demote them to where they excelled; In this way, they are able to excel and provide more productivity to the organization while leaving open the “higher level” spot to another individual who will excel there. (theoretically)
There are two very common occurrences of this in the NFL. The first is at the ever-legendary #1 WR position. How many times have we seen a great #2 or #3 WR get signed for HUGE dollars in the ifseason, only to flop totally once it is “all them” like they wanted. Some players, because of the prestige and the pay (and the hype) cannot see that they only did well because the #2 CB was single covering them while the #1 guy was covered by the #1 CB and the #1 Coverage Safety, while the other safety was up trying to rein in the pro-bowl RB? Football is a team game, and finding the right role-players, and putting them in the positions where they excel is why New England has been so good for so long.
The second most common instance is in coaching. How many excellent coordinators (Mike Nolan, Mike Martz, Scott Linehan, Eric Mangini, Norv Turner) have been flops or absolute disasters as head coaches? Jim Schwartz, when he got hired for the Lions job, said that being a head coach is like being the coordinator of coordinators. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stated outright that he has to make an effort to make sure he sees and talks to every player on the roster personally once every couple of weeks or so. For both of them, the job of Head Coach should really be called Coaches’ Coach. Even the difference between coordinating the entire defense versus one position group was an enormous step, according to Schwartz.
the Peter Principle is denied the ability to work only by the high expectations and the high coaching turnover. However, the only way to tell if someone can make the step from coordinator to head coach is to give them a shot. Same as in a corporation, often times the only way to tell whether a person will succeed or not at the next level up is to give it a shot. Unfortunately for corporate America, there is often no way out — for the company or the miserable individual; the mangers just can’t admit a “mistake” and let a person go back to their prior job — if their pride could take it.
However, as you can see, the Peter Principle still has nothing to do with Matt Millen — or even, for that matter, Rod Marinelli — the leaders of 0-16. The business principle which comes closest is the Dilbert Principle, but even that doesn’t fit entirely.
Matt Millen was a player. Then he was a “talking head”. Upon becoming GM of the Lions he had never scouted a player in his entire life. He had never been in a draft room, much less run one. He had never “built a roster” or shopped the free agent pool with reality dogging his heels. He had never been near anything he was now in charge of doing.
Rod Marinelli was a Position Coach with a “really long title, but not too much more responsibility” which according to my Peter Principle article above is one way to make someone who excels at his position happy without actually giving him a promotion. He was then elevated to Head Coach — skipping the all important Coordinator spot (which is the intermediate step where you are first managing both coaches and players, before moving into HC where you are mostly managing coaches).
The part of the Dilbert Principle that applies is both Matt Millen and Rod Marinelli were promoted from a position of excellence, to a position beyondthe level of incompetence. “the incompetent workers are promoted directly to management without ever passing through the temporary competence stage.” [Adams 1996 p12 cited from a great economic paper on the Peter and Dilbert Principles.] (The part where this doesn’t work is neither was promoted to get them out of their prior position to prevent “further damage” — but hey, I said it was close, not 100%).
This is nothing new, and in fact is not unhealthy in the workplace Unless a person is allowed to remain at their level of borderline competence/incompetence rather than being placed where they excel. In football, I as I have mentioned, most of the time players/coaches are demoted back to where they excel through the competitive nature of the sport. Again, you never know what a player or coach can do in a position unless you try them there (Within reason, or course. Jason Hanson doesn’t need to be taking reps at DT).
So if you hear Matt Millen in conjunction with the Peter Principle again, be sure to correct the speaker that it was the Dilbert Principle at work, more-so than the Peter Principle.
Tomorrow, I’m going to expand this concept to take a look at Matthew Stafford and the now-infamous David Green comparison…
What are your thoughts on these principles and football — the Lions in particular??