The Peter Principle

When people in a sufficiently large hierarchy are promoted because of their competence, the end result will tend to put everyone into a position for which they are not competent.

In other words, the cream will rise until it sours.

The theory behind the Peter Principle is this: when Alice is competent in her position, she will be promoted to another position because of her competence. Alice may or may not be competent at that new position. If she is incompetent, then she will become ineligible for promotion and stay put; she will be kept in that position indefinitely, even if there are other positions in the hierarchy which may suit her skills. The workers who are competent will keep being promoted for as long as they are competent and there are open slots above; they will be promoted out of the positions they are competent in but kept in the position they fail at. Since the only way to stay in a position below the top of the hierarchy indefinitely is to be incompetent, the hierarchy will eventually stabilize into an organization that is mostly incompetent.

A common example of this is in any technical field where an especially good engineer may be promoted to lead engineer and then made a supervisor. Now, his strongest skillset is going unused — supervisors don't get to engineer directly — and he struggles to get by using his less developed management skills.

The name comes from the book by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, which is about this principle and discusses it in about twelve chapters worth of detail.

A common cause of the Pointy-Haired Boss and Modern Major General. The Career Building Blunder is one method of defying this trope. Compare and contrast Brain Drain.

The counterpoint is The Dilbert Principle, which states that incompetent workers will always be promoted first (into inconsequential middle management positions), in order to keep them from interfering with the efforts of the competent, and is said to be a reaction to the identification of this trope (but if the competent ones want to be promoted, they'll suffer a Passed-Over Promotion). Compare/contrast Kicked Upstairs (arguably an invocation of the trope) and Unfit for Greatness.


Examples of this Trope include:

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     Anime & Manga 

  • In Attack on Titan, only the best students are allowed to join the "prestigious" Military Police Brigade that guards the innermost wall and the King. Therefore, the most skillfully trained soldiers are placed in a position of authority farthest from any actual fighting, while those less capable are more likely to be on the front lines. This situation is actually well known, and most who hone their skills high enough to be able to get the position were doing so just to be placed in a safe life. Eren bitterly notes the disconnect.
    • Adding to this, since hand-to-hand combat skills aren't valued as highly as 3D Maneuver Gear piloting, students who want to join the Military Police Brigade prioritize 3D Maneuver Gear training over melee combat training. This means that the soldiers who would be expected to fight human-sized opponents more often are actually the least qualified ones to do so.
  • Team Dai-Gurren in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Fighting an action filled, explosion riddled resistance? Easily done. Slowing down after the fighting and running the government you're in charge of? No thanks. Most of them are aware of this and the fighters struggle to deal with their new jobs while the support team has it easier. Simon is on top, but Rossieu does most of the work as his second-in-command. After Simon's wedding with Nia and her death seconds after, he leaves Rossieu in charge and Lagann to Darry.

     Fan Works 

  • A Boy, a Girl and a Dog: The Leithian Script: After being ousted by conniving relatives, Finrod appoints his youngest brother Orodreth as regent. Previously Orodreth had only governed little provinces and strongholds and all of sudden he had to rule a kingdom spanned two thirds of the subcontinent where the story happens. He was completely overwhelmed, trying to desperately keep everything together as feeling inadequate and incompetent.
  • Consequences of Revelation takes this stance on Commander Palmer's seeming incompetence in canon - she worked well commanding small teams, but was promoted beyond her level of skill. This causes her to make mistakes... but when you're as highly placed as "Leader of all SPARTAN forces on the most advanced UNSC ship in existence," any mistakes you make are magnified nearly exponentially.

     Film  

  • In Star Trek II, Kirk is now an Admiral, his job is mostly clerical and he's depressed over getting old. Spock reminds Kirk that he has more to offer as a captain than as an admiral. "Being a starship captain is your first, best destiny," he explains. "Anything else is a waste of material." It's an opinion that Bones also shares, offering that the reason Kirk feels so old is probably because he's not out there "hopping galaxies" and suggests commanding a starship again.
    • A fact not lost on the rest of Starfleet and Federation government, after Kirk's "punishment" by being demoted to captain two films later.
    • Kirk then makes sure to tell Picard in Generations never to accept a promotion out of the Enterprise's captain's chair.
      • Advice Picard apparently takes to heart, as several films later he's still a captain, while Janeway has been Kicked Upstairs to Admiral.
  • The protagonist of Major Dundee allegedly only got where he is by siding against a friend, and he makes some very questionable decisions during his quest to destroy an Apache tribe massacring essentially innocent settlers, at one point causing his own men to resent him.
  • Casino gives us Nicky Santoro (who was, in fact, based on a real person). Nicky is a highly competent thief, drug dealer, extortionist, and hit man, so competent that he is promoted to be The Mafia's representative in Las Vegas. Sadly, running the mob's operations in Vegas requires tact, subtlety, and more than a little bit of stealth, none of which are skills Nicky actually possesses.
  • Played with in Get Smart where the Chief doesn't want to promote Max to a field agent because he's so good at his current job. He's later forced to when most of the agents covers are compromised.
  • Lt. Gorman in Aliens is shown to be a terrible commanding officer who gives poor orders and freezes up when everything goes south. However when Ripley and Hicks take over command, he lets them without any effort despite officially the senior officer by rank, and shown to be a good soldier fighting against the Xenomorphs and not hesitating for a moment to return for Vasquez, someone who came close to killing him for his mistakes. It gives one the distinct impression Gorman would have been happier and more effective as a common soldier.

     Literature  

  • The author of the comic Dilbert wrote an entire book dedicated to how promotion has changed from this to what he calls the Dilbert Principle, in other words, instead of people getting promoted to their lowest level of competence, any and all incompetent employees are placed in the one place where they can do the least damage: Management.
    • Which in turn leads to the creation of managers like the Pointy-Haired Boss.
    • It's plausible enough in the high-skilled area he works in, Engineering and similar fields. If you wanted to avoid promoting your most talented workers out of roles in which they could use their talents (averting the Peter Principle) but you were determined to promote internally, you would end up promoting, not the most incompetent employees perhaps, but individuals who have less of a grasp on what is going on than those they supposedly supervise do.
      • This isn't such a bad idea necessarily. Employers would ideally have managers that understood the industry they are in charge of, so they may hire many people at the lower levels first, and promote liberally, as in the case of the military. The manager may not necessarily be good at working at the lower levels of the organization in this case, but if they show enough ability as a manager, it may end up still working out.
    • Two cartoons in February 1993 featured a character called Peter, who illustrates the original principle.
  • Averted in E. E. “Doc” Smith's Skylark Series, when the Osnomian King is much relieved by his son's adequate performance in a critical test. Had the younger man failed, the king would have had him executed for it and then would commit suicide for failure himself "...as only an incompetent would delegate an important task to another incompetent."
  • Played with in the Honor Harrington cycle. The Ace Pilot Scotty Tremaine, despite his preference and obvious knack, gets promoted to command a squadron of cruisers, but his superiors know of it and give him this post so he could gather some experience beyond the small-craft operations. One may presume he'll return to light attack craft and carriers, once he finishes this tour of duty.
  • The Big Bad of Michael Stackpole's contributions to the X-Wing Series is a fantastic Director of Intelligence for The Empire. She's ruthless, hideously smart, can convert people into Manchurian Agents, and in general is a Manipulative Bastard. However, the Council which rules the Empire some time after the Emperor is dead does not respect her advice or recognize her skills, so she has them killed. As the leader of the Empire, without checks on her authority and people vetoing her plans, Isard is terrible. She's such a Bad Boss that some of her employees defect to the New Republic, and she keeps coming up with plans like infecting Coruscant with a really, really awful Synthetic Plague and then letting them take it.
  • Borborygmus Gog in Galaxy of Fear is clearly good at Mad Scientist and infiltration things, enough so to be put in charge of Project Starscream, which has various sub-projects that all produce interesting results. But he's frankly awful at keeping them all from being sabotaged by Meddling Kids. Darth Vader notices this and is snide, so Gog decides to try and find out a way to get rid of him, but guess how well that works.
  • In Harry Potter, Ministers of Magic Cornelius Fudge and Rufus Scrimgeour are promoted past their emotional competence. Fudge is too afraid to make hard decisions, and has to see Riddle in person to face reality. Scrimgeour is too proud to ask for advice, and blunders his way through and takes too many cues from Bartemius Crouch, Senior. Scrimgeour was a competent head of the Aurors, though, and he still dies a hero's death.
    • An example of incompetence in a newly-joined hierarchy: Gilderoy Lockhart, for all his ego, is a masterful storyteller. But since flying and memory charms are the only things he can do, teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts is beyond his physical competence.
  • Ailnoth in The Raven in the Foregate is a competent clerk, but when made a village confessor his Holier Than Thou attitude imperils the flock and drives a parishioner to suicide after he publicly bars her on the (doctrinally unsound) grounds that if the flesh was weak then the spirit was unwilling. After Ailnoth ignores his last epiphany, God Himself smites him.

     Live Action TV  

  • The Office (US)'s Michael Scott, Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin. It's shown that he used to be a great salesman and still is when called upon but has none of the right skills for management. His UK counterpart is less this and more simply a guy that flaked out once cameras started being pointed at him.
    • By extension, Dwight would be a clear example of this too if he ever got promoted, and even Jim Halpert, who is very intelligent but still somewhat immature, has fallen victim to this. The case with Dwight ends up subverted by the series' end, as he undergoes a bit of Character Development and learns to respect his coworkers, leading him to take on the Regional Manager job on a permanent basis. By this point, everyone is actually happy for him, and he performs admirably in the position.
  • This happens on ER on occasion. The most obvious case is Dr. Kerry Weaver, who angles for any promotion she can get, generally letting the power go to her head immediately. This was also the case for Doug Ross, who was put in charge of a pediatric mini-ER, but let that spiral out of control while helping a woman with a terminally ill child. Mark Greene was an Attending, but continually was reminded that he was lacking in the discipline department, while Carter, while a very caring doctor, screwed up surprisingly often for a guy who seemed to be one of the senior residents. In fairness, Weaver didn't seem all that interested in hiring him as an Attending (she did so due to a shortage, mainly), and he was only made Chief Resident after Chen was fired.
  • Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock, who was promoted from the microwave oven division of GE, was written this way early on. Liz Lemon, too, is a comedy writer by experience and inclination but her job is as much management as anything else, she's received no management training other than what Jack has given her on the job, and much of the show's comedy is derived from how in-over-her-head she is.
    • Strangely justified for Jack, as Real Life GE has been known to routinely shuffle upper-level management between unrelated departments.
    • As of the 100th episode this is really starting to haunt Jack, who never expected to be stalled on one corporate rung for five years.
    • In the episode "Double Edged Sword", Pete references this by name
    Pete Hornberger: The reason people are unhappy in their careers is that they keep getting promoted until they're in over their heads. The Peter Principal says you rise to the level of your incompetence.
    Tracy Jordan: But my incompetency knows no bounds!
  • M*A*S*H: Hawkeye and Charles are amazing surgeons, but both have no management skills whatsoever, when Colonel Potter left each of them in charge, Charles turned the 4077th into his personal fiefdom (but did take care of his duties) and Hawkeye quickly degenerated to The Neidermeyer.
    • Henry Blake is a pretty good doctor, but he really isn't suited for a command position, fortunately for him, Radar was able to take care of the day-to-day stuff, and the staff of the MASH preferred his Mildly Military style.
  • Archie "Snake" Simpson in Degrassi: competent, well-liked and respected, Reasonable Authority Figure tech teacher who has the school spiral out of control as principal, cracks down hard, and has already begun capitulating less than five episodes later, in one case to a student who covered his car in Post-It notes!
  • The title character of The Brittas Empire is so far above his competence level at this point that people will write him glowing recommendation letters in order to get rid of him.
  • Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones was mentioned to be a good warrior and general, which was how he got his throne in the first place. Unfortunately it turned out that he was a poor administrator who rarely paid attention to his advisors whenever they tried to reign in his spending and he was less than a stellar husband in a position that required a decent marriage to ensure stability when it was time to transfer power. The moment he died everything fell to pieces.
  • In Star Trek, Starfleet seems to have systems in place to avert this trope wherever possible (with exceptions):
    • Exception: In Star Trek: Enterprise, while everyone's lack of experience is understandable given humanity are newcomers on the galactic stage, the sheer incompetence displayed by Jonathan Archer in any area relating to captaining a starship gives the impression that he was only given the captain's chair due to his father designing the Warp 5 engine, as well as being one of the test pilots who helped to break the Warp 2 barrier. He's no doubt a decent Starfleet officer by any means, but he's clearly way out of his depth as the man leading humanity out into the black.
    • Commander Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation is offered a promotion to captain of his own vessel more than once and refuses on the grounds that he has more to learn from Captain Picard before he steps up to his own command. It's stated at least once that if he refuses again he is unlikely to get another offer, implying that Starfleet views a repeated refusal as a sign that this trope is in place and the officer is unsuited for further promotion. Indeed, on those (relatively rare) occasions where Riker is seen performing the duties unique to first officer such as organizing duty rosters and dealing with disciplinary issues among the crew, he seems very competent in his current position. On the other hand, every time he winds up commanding in his own right, he seems perfectly competent at that too. He argues that being First Officer of the flagship of the fleet is far more prestigious than being the Captain of any "lesser" ship, and he has a point: Star Trek: Nemesis shows that even despite his repeated refusals before, he still basically has the pick of any ship in the fleet when he finally does accept a promotion. (Of course, the Doylist explanation is that he will never be permanently promoted during the show's run because Status Quo Is God.)
    • In an alternate continuity, a Picard that has remained a competent but relatively low-ranking science officer throughout his career suddenly displays an interest in promotional opportunities, especially in command. He is discouraged from pursuing this on the grounds that, while excellent as a science officer, he has never shown any real spark of ambition or initiative, implying that his superiors are consciously attempting to avert this trope. (They seem to suspect that this sudden interest in command may be due to a midlife crisis.)
    • In another episode, Counselor Troi takes the bridge officer's exam so that she will be better qualified to command the ship in the event of an emergency. (Doctor Crusher has already taken and passed it despite it not being particularly relevant to her position as Chief Medical Officer, and in an alternate future is shown commanding a medical frigate.) She is given a battery of tests specifically designed to ensure that she is not promoted above her ability; she has the most trouble with a Secret Test of Character designed to test if she would be willing to order a subordinate to undertake a Suicide Mission if it's the only way to save the lives of the rest of the crew.
  • Both Power Rangers Lost Galaxy and Power Rangers S.P.D. had episodes where the resident engineer was offered a promotion, only to back out when they realized it meant they'd be supervising projects and not doing the fun part any more. Neither one addressed whether the character would be (in)competent in a supervisory role, but the point is made that the promotion would involve an entirely different skillset from what they enjoy and are already established to be good at.
  • Parks and Recreation:
    • Ron Swanson is an excellent handyman and one could imagine him as a top-notch park ranger,note  but he lacks the interpersonal and political skills and most of all the motivation to be an effective department head, which is why he pawns off all his actual duties on Hypercompetent Sidekick Leslie Knope.
      • Ron actually invokes this trope; he doesn't believe that the government should exist, so he took a job there knowing he would be bad at it, just so he could do it poorly and slow everything down. There are moments when he actually considers trying for a promotion so he could do an even worse job at something even more important.
    • For Leslie's part, she excels as the Deputy Director of a relatively small department where she can micromanage her subordinates and do the vast majority of the organizational work herself, but she's far too idealistic, bullheaded, and unwilling to delegate to be an effective City Councilwoman. She persists in forcing through unpopular legislation and pet projects that she hasn't adequately sold to the voters or her fellow council members, resulting in her impeachment.
  • In Scrubs a major element of the Character Development involves the various cast members seeking promotions and jumping through bureaucratic hoops in order to get them. In the case of Dr. Cox, he proved to be very talented in the small leadership positions he took on, but found himself completely overwhelmed when he reached Chief of Medicine because it required a lot more paperwork and less time with patients. It took him a couple of episodes to find his own rhythm. With both J.D. and Turk, it's a plot point at several times that they are not the most skilled in their specific field (internal medicine and surgery) but had a natural gift in leadership positions. This is in contrast to Elliot, who is extremely gifted with general practice but far too neurotic to be in charge of others.
  • Barry Garner in Battlestar Galactica (2003). Originally the chief engineer on the Pegasus he was promoted to captain following the deaths of the senior officers. He was stated to have been an excellent engineer but a mediocre captain due to trying to treat people like machinery.
  • Kristin Baxter in Last Man Standing did an excellent job as the day-to-day manager of an upscale restaurant so Mike hired her to be in charge of the planning and opening of the new "Outdoor Man Grill" restaurant in Denver. However, while Kristin did an excellent job with the day-to-day planning, she dropped the ball on a number of things she never had to do before such as dealing with suppliers and building inspectors. This led to Mike having to cover for her and him not wanting to hire her as a consultant for the second restaurant opening in Dallas.

     Sports  
  • Golden Tee Golf's original prize structure drove this home hard. Players were grouped into Bronze, Silver, and Gold classes, each with correspondingly greater prizes. One official tournament was held every month, after which the top Bronze finishers advanced to Silver and the top Silver finishers advanced to Gold. The kicker was that in Silver, it wasn't too hard for reasonably skilled players to consistently finish in the money, and they'd drop to Bronze if they came up empty for three straight tournaments. Gold, however, paid off only the top 75 finishers...about a quarter of the class at any given time...and demotion to Silver happened only after losing out in SIX straight tournaments. Worse, Gold had, of course, the best Golden Tee Golf players in the world, many of whom were good enough to cash in every tournament, leaving even fewer spots for the new blood. The net result was that for many, many players, promotion to Gold meant having absolutely no chance to win anything for half a year!
    • Which was the original point of the structure - it was specifically made to prevent Gold-level players from exploiting the system by sandbagging just to win extra money at the Silver level.
  • In sumo, a rikishi getting promoted to a rank where he's completely over his head isn't a big deal; he'll simply have a terrible tournament and be demoted. The exception is ozeki. Reaching the rank requires an exceptional record over three tournaments, generally 30-15 and one runner-up at minimum. However, he cannot be demoted unless he has two consecutive losing records. He is merely "kadoban" after one losing record; if he has a positive result the next tournament, even 8-7, the slate is clean. This has allowed quite a few ozeki to remain at the rank long after they've dropped WAY below the level they were when they got it:
    • Chiyotaikai - Promoted to ozeki after his breakout January 1999 basho, he stumbled horribly out of the gate in March and May, but recovered and had a pretty good track record through 2000. And then he suffered two nasty injuries in 2001 and 2002 that completely ruined his form (the pressure of being Kokonoe-beya's next great hope after Chiyonofuji certainly didn't help either). From then on he was largely doomed to a 6 to 9 win treadmill and a humiliating parade of kadobans. He finally was demoted in January 2010, where he blasted off to a 0-4 start and promptly retired.
    • Musoyama - A good-but-not-great oshi specialist and one of the then-formidable Musashigawa stable, he had one impressive stretch of dominance in early 2000 which propelled him to ozeki...and never lived it down. Inconsistency and seemingly endless injuries would plague the remainder of his career; he only ever exceeded 10 wins once more (March 2001) and was kadoban 6 times.
    • Miyabiyama - Another Musashigawa stalwart, he shot up the ranks like a rocket in his early career, needing a mere 12 tournaments...two years!..to make ozeki. He was the surest lock for yokozuna since Takanohana. So how did his ozeki stint go? He goes 54-51 over his next 7 tournaments (barely adequate for a komusubi), going kadoban 3 times in the process, then in September 2001 suffers a devastating injury which knocks him out of the next TWO tournaments and catapults him back into the rank and file. The Sumo Association was so disgusted by his collapse that they refused to promote him back to ozeki in July 2006, even though he'd gone 34-11 with a runner-up, which should've been more than enough.
    • Kaio - One of many outstanding ozeki who was just not good enough to make the final jump to yokozuna. Despite never contending for a championship after 2004 and having to miss a lot of tournaments to injury, he hung on for tournament after tournament, one losing record never becoming two. He had an amazing knack, however he did it, for getting that all-important 8th win; he was 8-7 for all six tournaments in 2009. He finally succumbed to the inevitable, at the astounding age of 39, in July 2011. He's tied with Chiyotaikai for the most tournaments at ozeki (65) and is the sole holder of most tournaments in makuuchi (107) and most kadobans (14). He was never demoted.
    • Tochiazuma - Formidable multi-talent who made ozeki during his peak from September 2001 to January 2002. Unfortunately, that's when his myriad health problems decided to come crashing down on him en masse, and his ozeki tenure was a horrendous roller coaster where he was as likely to finish with 2 wins as 12. Did manage to pull in one championship and two runners-up before his body completely gave out in March 2007.
  • Michael Jordan is one the undisputed greats to ever play in the NBA. For a while, it seemed like a couple of mediocre years in Washington would be his career low point. Then came 2010, where MJ became general manager of the Charlotte Hornets (Formerly the Bobcats). To say his management of the team (who posted a floundering 7-59 record in a strike shortened season) has been unimpressive is putting it mildly.
    • Isaiah Thomas is another example: great player who led the Pistons to two championships, horrible coach and general manager.
  • Wayne Gretzky is known among hockey fans as "The Great One". A total legend in his sport. Then he became coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. 4 lousy seasons, only one of them ending with Phoenix finishing above .500(By one game at that) and zero playoff appearances. "The Great One" moniker clearly didn't follow him into coaching.
  • Rene Meulensteen; generally considered to be the Hypercompetent Sidekick to Sir Alex Ferguson during Manchester United's dominance of the new millennium in the English Premier League. Fans were begging for David Moyes to retain him, but Moyes let Meulensteen leave anyway, to go off to Anzhi in Russia. He was sacked after sixteen days. Next, he went to manage Fulham; three months of dismal performances later, Meulensteen was sacked again, and replaced with ex-Bayern manager Felix Magath.
    • Ferguson's previous number two, Steve Mclaren, also struggled with management for a time (culminating in the England debacle).
  • There is a very long list of college football players (including Heismann Trophy winners) that were stellar in college but underperformed or outright busted once they reached the NFL. Some of the more notable players include Ryan Leaf, Tim Tebow, Ja Marcus Russell, Brian Bosworth, and Lawrence Phillips.

     Tabletop Games 

  • The Clans in BattleTech all emphasize combat prowess, with the best combatants being promoted to higher command positions. Their technological and tactical combat strength allowed them to overrun hundreds of worlds in the unprepared and technologically backwards Successor States in a tiny timespan, but when the Successor States commanders began to fight back, they realized several things; Clanners are amazing combatants, and they're lead by raging General Failures who can't handle logistics or grand strategy. ComStar - a telecommunications nation/sect that hoarded technology - routed the Clans at Tukayyid by exploiting their leaderships failings and their silly honor code, forcing an armistice to give the Successor States time to prepare for any later invasions.
    • Actually, it's surprisingly rare for a high-ranking Clan officer to be an utterly incompetent administrator or tactician. Logistics and strategy are weak spots, but that has more to do with overall Clan training and how they choose to wage war instead of any individual incompetence. It's quite rare for a Clan leader to be depicted as amazing at personal combat but hopeless in leadership. A few times, it's notably the inverse; a Clan leader has stellar administration or strategic abilities, but "cheats" in their Trials of Position to gain/attain a rank high enough to put those skills to use.

     Video Games  

  • The Sims 3, where an early job promotion can lead to poor performance at the new level, if skills and other requirements are not improved.
  • Trebonius Artorius, the Arch-Mage and Guildmaster of the Mages Guild from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. He is actually an incredible battlemage as you see when you duel with him to claim his position, but is rightfully treated as an administrative joke by the rest of the guild. When you ask him for something to do, he sends you on two snipe hunts, one of which he barely recognizes your completing it (he's actually flabbergasted at the fact that you even had virtual success), and the other you're probably not supposed to survive. He also completely trusted a Telvanni spy whose credentials had High Chancellor Ocato's signature spelled wrong.
  • Not an individual example, but the Turian race in Mass Effect actively tries to avert this. From the in-game codex: "Throughout their lives, turians ascended to the higher tiers and are occasionally "demoted" to lower ones. The stigma associated with demotion lies not on the individual, but on those who promoted him when he wasn't ready for additional responsibility. This curbs the tendency to promote individuals into positions beyond their capabilities."
    • The entire Citadel Council tend to be portrayed this ways, as a group of over-glorified ambassadors and politicians. If left to die in the first game, the third game reveals that their replacements aren't that much better either. The tendency to simply stick their head in the sand whenever there's trouble, forces Shepard in the third game to go over their heads and organise a summit with the leaders of each of their respective governments, so that they can properly organise a counter-offensive against the Reapers.
  • This is the reason given, via All There in the Manual, for why Dawn of War's Indrick Boreale was such a raging General Failure. He was one of the Blood Ravens chapter's greatest scout snipers, but his achievements lead to him being promoted far above his level of competence, culminating in him being given the unenviable task of trying to subjugate an entire solar system overrun with over a half dozen different enemy factions, with predictable results.
  • Hearts of Iron 2 depicts this process with its military commanders: each successive promotion (which is required to allow them to command larger armies or fleets) reduces their skill level. Therefore, an excellent Major-General (skill level 4), who commands one division, can be promoted three times to become a mediocre Field Marshal (skill level 1), who commands twelve divisions. (Fortunately, skill level cannot fall below 0.)

     Webcomics  

  • Stanley the Plaid of Erfworld is an excellent frontline fighter and squad leader who wields a weapon forged by the gods. Once he 'earns' a promotion to Overlord, he is totally incompetant at his new role. Worse, since his entire side is a Keystone Army with him as the keystone, he can't go out and use his real skills lest he die in battle and doom his entire kingdom.
  • In Exterminatus Now, Word of God claims the protagonists' Bad Boss Commander Antonius Schaefer was formerly a brilliant field agent (as evidenced by his fight with Edward Bay) but was promoted into becoming an incompetent bureaucrat.

     Western Animation  

  • Airachnid of Transformers Prime is a lethal hunter, and masterful solo operative. Her skills however do not translate well into command, and she has proven to be rather incompetent when placed in charge.
    • Starscream, on the few rare occasions when he does manage to achieve leadership of the Decepticons. While not completely incompetent (he actually does a pretty good job), he's nowhere near as diabolical or cruel as Megatron.
      • It's worth pointing out that Prime's Starscream is only interested in the glory of command, not the responsibility. He's only out for command to stroke his own ego, whereas Prime's Megatron does his damnedest to keep the Decepticons a unified force. Compare this to G1 Starscream, who in at least one continuity not only snagged (temporary) command of the Decepticons, but was also a fairly capable leader.
  • In an episode of Family Guy where Chris briefly took over Peter's job he proved so much better at it he got promoted. However, due to downsizing at the workplace, Chris ended up saddled with more work, causing him to work himself to the ground, lose sleep, take up drinking before he got a heart attack from stress.
  • A memorable Rocko's Modern Life episode featured Ed Bighead being asked to make a corporate decision, which he does...with help from a Magic Meatball. (Kind of like a Magic 8 Ball...only it's a meatball.) He does this more and more, quite literally rising through the ranks until he gets an office in space and his old supervisor becomes his Yes-Man. He then has a nervous breakdown once his Meatball accidentally breaks, and is demoted back to his old position.
  • The Simpsons: Lisa Simpson is definitely smarter than the average 8-year-old, yet any episode that deals with her rising above her peers (such as being promoted to the 3rd grade or going to a private school) also exposes her intellectual flaws.

     Real Life  

  • German General Heinz Guderian. A good battlefield commander, he was merely a (barely-)competent operational/campaign commander and a completely incompetent strategist. His neglect of logistics was something he shared with many of his contemporaries, but his grasp of the concept was egregiously poor and his attitude to it verged on contempt. Unfortunately for Nazi Germany, but luckily for the wider world, he served as an important operational and strategic-level commander throughout the war.
  • A Real Life example of this would be General John B. Hood of the Confederate States of America during The American Civil War. An excellent brigade and division commander, he was merely competent at the corps level and performed poorly while in command of an army.
    • Avoiding this trope in real life is one of the primary reasons many modern militaries discharge or retire members who go more than a certain length of time without being promoted. The idea is to make room for younger, and potentially more talented, members to be promoted to those positions.
      • One of the challenges is that different ranks require different skills. Those in higher positions, by necessity, need to become bureaucrats and administrators, for example. For this reason, YMMV in terms of how much Peter Principle applies to specific individuals. Erwin Rommel, for example, was an outstanding tactician and was quite indisputably in the top twenty tacticians in the entire German Army. However, his failings as a logistician and administrator resulted in questionable performance as a Corps and Army commander (in North Africa) and poor performance as an Army Group commander (in France).
      • This is one of the purposes of the Warrant Officer corps. Warrant officers are officers in the traditional sense, but are usually (almost exclusively) recruited up from the NCO ranks. However, where Commissioned Officers are trained to lead successively larger numbers of troops and everything that entails, Warrant Officers are technical specialists, who continue to hone and use the technical skills they received as Enlisted personnel. Most NCO's are trained to lead troops with their Commissioned Officers, other Enlisted gain technical skills the military don't want wasted...therefore they have a separate track for them to continue to use the valuable skills the organization needs...rather than waste them on trying to lead troops, for which they are not really trained.
  • Common Real Life examples (too numerous to list) include people who were great as military commanders but failed in the field of politics later taking office, and vice versa, politicians who have no military experience, being at a loss when their new station requires them to make military decisions.
  • General Sir Redvers Buller, VC. Buller made his reputation with some really fearless battlefield behaviour that deservedly won him Britain's highest honour. Unfortunately it also won him promotion in line with this trope. When he was immediately subordinate to a better field commander, he did as well as any other general. Left to his own devices, not so much. The fact that the 'd' in his forename is silent meant that he got called "Reverse" Buller after his disasters in the Boer War. Again, deservedly.
  • John Romero's admittedly high skill as a programmer and designer did not translate to any skill whatsoever as a project leader, manager or administrator. This was painfully evident throughout the Daikatana debacle.
    • The same could be said of Ultima's Richard Garriott during Ultima VIII and IX.
  • Former President Jimmy Carter is often held as an example of this. He did well in the Navy and as Governor of Georgia, but as President his approach faltered. He had a management strategy known as "spokes of the wheel", where he was the central hub and everyone else in the White House answered to him. However, this meant he would be handling all their responsibilities, rather than appointing capable leaders in those departments to do that work for him. After he left the White House, he ended up having a successful career as a diplomat, enough that historian Nigel Hamilton, who was critical of his Presidency, said his post-presidential work made Carter "the American Gandhi".
  • Jesse Ventura. He may have been fine as Mayor of Brooklyn Park (and as soldier, and as pro wrestler), but being elected Governor of Minnesota put him a good deal above his level of competence. His grandstanding and lack of a filter ended up alienating him from the legislature, and his dislike of the media and general lack of a sense of humor about himself didn't earn him many friends in the press, either. Add to this an economy-damaging tax rebate and it's of no real surprise that there was little disappointment when he chose not to run for re-election.
  • Truth in Television for many creative jobs, like at ad agencies. Someone might be incredibly talented at something artistic (say, a copywriter or graphic designer.) At some point, the higher up you go, the creative part of the job fades away and it becomes just like any other middle management paper-pushing job, which the person probably is not suited for.
  • Luigi Cadorna is a shining example of this in Italian history. While a magnificent staff officer and manager, his preference for offensives at all costs (something frequent among European generals at the time) and love for the harshest discipline made him a bad battlefield commander, getting him passed over for operative commands multiple times (most humiliatingly when command of the invasion of Libya was given to Carlo Caneva. Justified due the Curb-Stomp Battle Caneva inflicted on him during a wargame, but still an officer of dubious abilities at best), until the sudden death of the commander in chief Alberto Pollio (an equally capable manager and a superior tactician and strategist) and his own seniority saw him promoted to commander in chief. As commander in chief he was fast to learn the value of superior firepower and intelligent enough to create specifically trained shock troopers to defeat trench lines (one of the first) and orchestrate an effective (if callous) strategy based on his larger reserves of manpower, but his ruthlessness and lack of creativity ruined any chance for a quick victory and gave him an horrendous reputation (especially because superior generals did exist: the Duke of Aosta is rightly known as the best Italian general of the war and Undefeated Duke, and didn't get Cadorna's job only because the king feared he'd use it to take over the throne, and Armando Diaz, Cadorna's successor and a pupil of the Duke of Aosta, was so formidable that, when ennobled, his title was that of Duke of Victory).
    • By contrast, Carlo Caneva: while a capable general in the peculiar terrain of Italy, he just couldn't understand that Libya's flat desert plains were the perfect terrain for cavalry (an error that offensive enthusiast Cadorna would have not made), preventing him from achieving an easy victory at the start of the invasion and dooming the Italian occupation to a long guerrilla war.
  • The tenure/professorship system in universities have been described by the cynical as, "Say, this chap appears to be very good at researching, let's promote him so he can spend his entire time doing paperwork!"
  • Joe Quesada is a pretty good artist; his style changed quite a bit, but generally its rather good. Unfortunately, he's not a very good writer or editor, so when he got promoted to Editor in Chief, time was not good for Marvel fans.
    • It should be noted that Quesada was very good at marketing and promotion, and putting the right people on the right books and developing projects and addressing issues that the fans have had with comics for years. It was only when he started to take a more direct hand in the creative process that he started to show he was out of his depths. In other words, he knew how to promote the characters, but not what made them great in the first place.
  • Generally speaking, many sales and retail establishments in the US tend to promote their best sales people into management positions. This then removes the best sales people from the sales floor, and gets them involved in administration work including interviewing and training new hires, making schedules for the store, attempting to enforce company policies, mediating disputes between employees, attempting to stay consistent with local labor laws, and so on and so forth, despite never having had those responsibilities before. Some turn out to also have those skills in addition to their sales abilities, (or at least develop a decent enough understanding of it with time) but many do not. This reinforces certain stereotypes about retail jobs.
  • Many incompetent principals were once perfectly competent teachers. One of the very few ways in which to move up once you're a teacher is to become a principal (otherwise, you're a teacher and that's pretty much it), so a lot of people do it even though the two jobs are more or less completely different from one another.
  • Sadly this may be enforced in the UK where teachers are asked to take a certain position outside their comfort zone. If they try and refuse to take the new position, they could be reprimanded by having it go on their records or even demoted.
  • Many of Napoleon's marshals suffered from this: they were very competent as divisional or corps commanders, which was why they were promoted in the first place, but they proved unable to command larger units efficiently. Grouchy is a well-known example. He was one of the finest cavalry generals of the Grand Army and also had occasions to demonstrate his skill with infantry, but as Waterloo proved, he did not function well as an independent commander.
  • From the Three Kingdoms period of China (made famous by Romance of the Three Kingdoms), one of the most famous examples is Zhuge Liang's protege Ma Su. While the Romance portrays him as being young, cocky and overconfident, historically he was a competent officer who managed to contain a large rebellion within Shu's borders long enough for Zhuge Liang to lead reinforcements put the rebellion down. Unfortunately for Ma, Zhuge liked him a lot and put him in charge of a vital position (over more veteran generals). It didn't end well for him.
  • A lot of software companies suffer from this. The people doing the actual coding tend to be relatively inexperienced and the actually talented people tend to get "promoted" to management positions. This probably explains a lot of instances of Idiot Programming and Obvious Beta. It can also explain why the industry is plagued with Schedule Slip and Vaporware as technical people may or may not be competent managers and technical workers without good managers will make inefficient use of time and resources.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ThePeterPrinciple