“Everyone rises to their level of incompetence.” – Lawrence J. Peter

We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, you will be. That moment when you see someone in the process of making a mistake so monumental that you can’t believe what you’re seeing is real. But it is. And they do it.

We call them “WTF?” moments. They occur with such frequency that they’ve become the stuff of urban (and social media) legend. There are websites that chronicle them. Awards that memorialize the guilty parties. We’ve heard the stories so often they have a Ferris Bueller feel to them. Maybe you didn’t see it yourself, but your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard it from a guy who knows a kid… well, you get the point.

As a lieutenant—about as low down the food chain of military officer rank that it gets—I remember seeing a gaggle of troops burying a 40-foot-long container full of parts and equipment at the direction of their commander. Even I knew that wasn’t going to end well. It was a career-ending mistake for the captain who ordered it, and I’m sure on some level he thought that it was a good idea at the time. As incompetent decisions go, he rose to the occasion that day. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how that particular leader had ever been promoted in the first place.

On some level, I’d like to say that was a rare occurrence. But it was only one of many.


Among the more valued books on my shelf is a well-worn copy of Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. The book is approaching 50 years old, and Dixon himself was a salty old veteran of the Royal Engineers who later in life became a university professor and award-winning psychologist. In other words, he’d seen his share of stupidity and had a clear understand of why it happens.

Incompetence has less to do with intelligence than disconnects in how people perceive situations, solve problems, and make decisions. As Dixon peeled back the onion on instances of military incompetence in action, he drew on cognitive psychology—the science behind why people make the decisions they do—to better understand the disasters that followed. Dixon’s initial diagnosis revealed several common traits among failed leaders:

  • Inability to learn from past experience.
  • Passivity and indecisiveness.
  • Resistance to change.
  • Lack of moral courage.
  • Lack of creativity or innovativeness.
  • Overly high regard for the status quo.
  • Tendency to blame others for failure.
  • Risk aversion.
  • Procrastination

Although Dixon’s focus was on military leaders, his conclusions reveal that incompetence—military or otherwise—is shared across professions. The flawed leadership traits Dixon emphasized are present in the medical field, in education, and every other profession in existence. Wherever you find human leaders, you will find those characteristics.


What follows is stupidity. You just can’t sugarcoat it. And while Dixon’s book is a phenomenal study of historical levels of stupidity, it doesn’t really explain the “how.” As in, how do we find ourselves with leaders who rise to the level of their incompetence? Seemingly, most professions vet those who climb the ladder of success, leveraging some kind of process for weeding out the less capable. In theory, those left are the cream of the crop, the best of the best.

But it never seems to work out that way. Why? What makes us promote the wrong people?

1. Success can be an illusion.

We often promote those whose experiences look good on paper without looking deeply enough at the quality of those experiences. Beware the path to career success built on low-risk positions that kept someone in their comfort zone where the competition was light, the challenges were minimal, and the experiences never varied. They won’t rise to the challenge.

2. Arrogance can be disguised as self-confidence.

We all love to promote someone exuding self-confidence, so much so that it’s common to mistake raw arrogance for what it’s not. Self-confidence is built on learning from mistakes and growing. Arrogance, on the other hand, is borne of never being wrong or willing to admit you’ve made a mistake. Be wary of the arrogance trap: Unlearning the wrong lessons is lot harder than learning the right ones.

3. Chaos is often confused for productivity.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in the promotion process is that busy doesn’t always equate to productivity. On Seinfeld, this was George Costanza’s workplace mantra. People who exist in a perpetual state of busyness may actually be disorganized and chaotic. Not exactly the person who want to promote into a leadership position, where that chaos infects the entire organization.

4. Brilliance is blinding.

Intelligence doesn’t always equate to potential. It’s relatively common to single out and promote those whose intelligence consistently separates them from the crowd, without looking deeply enough at how they interact as part of that crowd. When someone is always the smartest person in the room, they’re actually blocking instead of encouraging learning. And if they believe they’re smarter than everyone else, the tyranny is just getting started.

5. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Turnover is a normal part of any organization, but there are times when it can lead to a certain sense of desperation. Maybe we drag our feet getting started or take too long to get organized. As a result, we accelerate the promotion process—taking a few shortcuts along the way—to fill critical gaps as quickly as possible. In the process, we promote hastily. Desperation is a cruel bridge troll, and when payment comes due, everyone suffers.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.