One thing is for certain, the theory surrounding leadership and what constitutes good leadership is ever-changing. If you want to screw up your career, just adopt one of the outdated leadership methodologies and stick to it. There’s a lot to choose from: we had behavioral theories in the 1940s and 50s, Contingency Leadership Theories in the 60s, Transactional leadership theories in the 70s, and now, the current transformational leadership theories of today. For the hundred years preceding those we only had the “Great Man” theory which ridiculously suggested that great leaders were born not made, and only men could lead. If you still subscribe to that theory, head back into your cave and ignore the rest of this video. It won’t help you anyway. The reason the leadership theories change so much over the years is that the business environment is dynamic and those who refuse to adapt, eventually fail and perish.
One leadership principle has been constant for most of our careers. We all learned in business school about the time-tested Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that as employees rise in the hierarchy of the organization, they eventually reach a level of incompetence that leads to their failure and eventual demise. We’ve all seen it in practice and probably joked that someone who is struggling in their current position is the embodiment of the “Peter Principle”.
One of the reasons that the Peter principle is so deadly to corporate careers is that the average person doesn’t know when to say no. Most people will not turn down a promotion, especially if it comes with greater pay and prestige – even if they know they are unqualified for the position. There is good and bad news associated with this. The good news…it is highly unlikely that you will fail in corporate America today because you are promoted to a position above your ability, the bad news – is that you are even more likely to fail today if you’re unable or unwilling to say no to work overload.
As corporate America has flattened and restructured the normal organizational structure, it’s less and less likely that saying yes to a promotion that makes you unqualified will be what causes you to fail. In the new corporate paradigm, the traditional hierarchy has been substantially eliminated and leaders work in broader “workgroups”. The new Peter principle is far more insidious, instead of promoting individuals, organizational leaders now just keep heaping more and more responsibilities and workload on their best employees. In fact, the more competent you are and the more willing you are to take on additional tasks and responsibilities, the more likely the organization will load you up until you fail.
If you don’t know how to prioritize and when to say no, your responsibilities and workload will continue to accumulate until you fail. If you really want to protect your career, an easy first step is to think of everything as two categories – things that matter and things you can control. Focus your efforts on the area where those two things intersect. If those two categories don’t intersect, you need to think seriously about practicing your vital new skill of tactfully saying, no. It may mean the difference between being around to make a future impact or not.