I had only served as a police officer for about 24 months before I was asked to test for field training officer (FTO). A quick promotion in law enforcement like this is an honor, since those selected are charged with leading newer officers through in-field training. Without reservation, I signed up to take the test.
FTOs are expected to know and abide by all the current policies and procedures. They must lead by example, demonstrating a stellar arrest and citation history with high numbers and thorough investigations. Their interviews, record keeping, report writing, court testimony and citizen interactions must demonstrate not just competence, but superiority. And leadership is a key factor in the selection. Anyone who has ever been promoted in law enforcement understands the importance of stacked responsibilities. This is the stuff rank advancements are built on. Or so I thought.
I really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the FTO program. There is so much gratification to be gained from shaping the future officers I would be working alongside. With each successful candidate, I could contribute to the positive culture of my department. I could make them like me … and wasn’t I someone others should model themselves after? Wasn’t I proving that daily with my standout stats, my rigorous FTO techniques and the high rate of trainee remediation I demanded? I was sure I was destined to make sergeant, my next career goal, in record time.
What actually happened in record time was my head grew two sizes bigger. Oh, the hubris!
Fast forward to when I made the rank of sergeant. I had greased the right skids and commanded a multi-agency response team. I read the books, went to the classes and took every chance to be seen at the important social events. Volunteering for agency-led community outreach? I did it. Overtime on holidays? Sign me up. Every shift I worked, I took pride in being in control of chaotic events and leading a team. My career was unstoppable. I was killing it in my own mind, which led me to the next promotion opportunity: lieutenant.
Reality check: I’d been so caught up in getting the next promotion, I never once considered whether I was ready for the job.
The Peter Principle
The term “Peter Principle” was coined in the late 1960s by Canadian sociologist Laurence J. Peter, but the concept goes at least as far back as Socrates. In short, it’s the idea that employees tend to rise to the maximum level of their own incompetence.
In their book, The Peter Principle, Peter and coauthor Raymond Hull discuss how promotions are often awarded to employees who are highly competent at their primary job, without regard to the progressive skills or knowledge required in the new role. If the promoted employee manages to succeed, they are often rewarded with further promotion, again without preparation, a process that repeats until the employee is fully out of their element. At that point they “stall out” at their ultimate level of ineptitude.
A key part of the Peter Principle is how the “push” of an employee to develop skills and demonstrate success is coupled with the “pull” of the employee’s mentors and those with decision-making power. The worker continues in this upward spiral, becoming less and less proficient at each successive assignment until the bottom falls out.
In law enforcement settings, the once-dynamic and overachieving police officer languishes in upper management, awaiting the magic age of retirement. A career that started off so well falters into diminished work output, apathy and flat-out lack of ability regardless of the ultimate rank the person eventually attains.
In other words, when it comes to promotion in law enforcement, success can be the most direct path to failure.
Competence (and Incompetence) in Police Management
In most industries, examples of the Peter Principle in action tend to be hidden away in cubicles and middle-management offices. Things are very different, though, in law enforcement. Since police work happens right out in the open, with intense public scrutiny, we tend to get daily doses of the Peter Principle via the media.
For example, we’ve seen considerable attention given recently to the public safety response to high-profile school shootings. Revelations in the media and government hearings have led to harsh public opinions being expressed about the leaders guiding the actions of first responders. At least in hindsight, many of the decisions seem to be just plain wrong.
It’s possible the leaders in charge of these situations had climbed to their own maximum level of personal incompetence. Any time a tactical plan is drawn up by on-scene commanders who made rank via the Peter Principle, tragic outcomes are almost bound to happen. As Lexipol’s co-founder Gordon Graham loves to say, “If it is predictable, it is preventable.”
Avoiding the Peter Principle Trap
There’s a very good reason the field of public safety is rife with this phenomenon. As government employees, police officers have quite a lot of authority. They carry guns and handcuffs and can haul people to jail. Many people look to them for rescuing. When people see themselves as rescuers, they can easily develop an inflated sense of self-worth.
Take, for example, the new sergeant on patrol. Most of us with a few years on the force can recall someone with fresh stripes arriving on a scene to tell us all how it was going to go down — from the initial response to the most basic investigative steps and even the report writing. The break-in period for the newly promoted can be brutal and painful for everyone. Many newly promoted sergeants often attempt to solve problems the rank-and-file officers don’t even know they have. Experienced officers’ abilities are often downplayed, and creativity discouraged.
It goes without saying that a sergeant like this may have been promoted based on superior skills and knowledge as a line officer. But the question remains: Will they snap out of the micromanaging mindset or languish at this rank, unable to progress? Will Peter and his principle stymie the new sergeant in their quest for further advancement? How will that novice, chevron-heavy supervisor know if they should try to step even one more rung up the career ladder?
The Solution Is Development
To foster positive skills, and eventually promotions, a supervisor must first stop rescuing their employees. Obviously, allowing subordinate officers to make mistakes needs to be limited to non-life-threatening scenarios. However, encouraging your Average Joe Officer to think for themselves will help develop their knowledge and skillset. Allowing — and forgiving — small failures away from public scrutiny is key in anyone’s growth in their current position.
Teaching is another factor. Reflect on what lessons you have imparted. Are you coaching independent thinkers or telling people what to do? The key is to guide without criticizing, to lead by example without being too heavy-handed with the soul-crushing judgments.
Where are you in your career path? As you work to develop those you lead, you need to take an honest look at your own performance. To assess whether you’re ready to take that next promotional test, ask yourself if your team is working independently. A competent leader or supervisor or manager will motivate and suggest, but rarely will tell or make orders.
My Peter Principle
I spent 12 years stalled as a sergeant, working patrol and special teams. At one point, I served a five-year sentence in the internal affairs department. It took a while, but I eventually mastered the rank. I allowed officer autonomy. In most cases, when I arrived on a scene, I was just there to assist and not command. I sponsored career development for my team and anyone else in the department who wanted guidance.
Yes, I was good at my job, but I was still anxious to climb the ladder. However, I had failed to recognize and develop the necessary qualities I would need as a lieutenant.
I tested for lieutenant more times than anyone else in department history before finally achieving that career goal. I spent the last two years of my career as a patrol lieutenant. And I hated almost every minute of it.
Reality check: I’d been so caught up in getting the next promotion, I never once considered whether I was ready for the job. I assumed I would just continue to progress and climb and pad my monthly retirement income.
I dislike thinking I was at a “level of maximum incompetence” in my final years in law enforcement. However, the administrative aspects of the rank were not my strong points. I was unhappy with my new office-heavy duties, and it showed in my performance. I didn’t enjoy employee timecards or writing proposals. I was uncomfortable disciplining employees who’d made mistakes. I can’t proclaim, with any amount of certainty, that I was a good lieutenant when much of the position required a desk, a computer and seemingly endless, unnecessary meetings. That was not me and I did not excel at it.
Luckily for everyone, my parole came in 2020 when I reached retirement age. I can see now I made a pretty good sergeant, but a mediocre lieutenant.
Although my career in law enforcement is over, there are plenty of candidates in public safety standing right behind me, eager for a chance to prove themselves at the next level. If you’re one of them, I hope you learn from my experiences and focus on developing the skills and knowledge you need to succeed, not just on achieving the rank.