Track Coach

TC246 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle (by Peter Laurence and Raymond Hull) was all the rage when it was published in 1969. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller and over the course of its first three years went through 17 editions. The Peter Principle was a cleverly written parody of a scholarly examination of leadership in a hierarchical structure that characterizes most organizations. These hierarchical structures could be in business, education, manufacturing or the military. The basic premise, repeated again and again, was that all management and leadership rises to a level of incompetence, everywhere.

I was introduced to the book in a poly sci course. My professor was enamored with the book. Schenectady, NY, at that time, was transitioning from a city manager form of municipal government to a strong mayor, elected by the people. The city manager was an educated professional trained for years in the nuances of running a municipality that offered residents a safe, affordable and wholesome living environment.

The strong mayor concept was closely tied to a “political machine,” with Richard Daley (Chicago) and Erastus Corning (Albany) being America’s two best examples. Both those cities ran smoothly and were generally seen as exceptions. The strong mayor concept was run by a silver-tongued politician, schooled in politics and usually lacking in the nuances of municipal government. The concept was always tied to patronage, cronyism and back door dealings. To the delight of my poly sci professor this produced a weekly stream of shenanigans as Schenectady’s governance proved to be a classic example of the Peter Principle in action.

Collegiate track & field has grown to a level of bureaucracy. Maybe we are one step behind football’s “coaches for coaches” set-up but any large program can now boast a staff of discipline specialists headed by a director of track & field and an associate head coach. Many staffs include an academic advisor, strength coaches, healthcare support and recruiting coordinator. Also on the list would be someone for compliance, psychological services, travel and transportation and most recently someone to coordinate NIL affairs. The organizational chart has become a pyramidal Rubik’s Cube.

Long gone are the hunter-gatherer days of coaching track & field. The old-time staffs of two broke things down with a simple—“I’ll do this and you do that,” and somehow things got done. Be it a day, a week or a season, there was no place to hide. If you, or #2 didn’t do it—it didn’t get done.

The evolution of today’s coaching reality, to a hierarchical status, can be argued from either side of the better or worse continuum. But at the end of the day a more productive result is to capitalize on the “what is” and strive to make the “what is” better.

We all know that in a larger organization, goal achievement may not be so coordinated. Everyone brings strengths and weaknesses to the table. Other baggage includes abilities, motivations and aspirations. Coordinated accomplishment then becomes the difference between a dynamic situation and one characterized by Peter as a “regression to the mean,” (i.e., mediocrity).

Suggested solutions are easy to come by, with implementation, not so much. The age-old activity of setting goals and agreeing on the means to accomplish them can look good on paper but that is no guarantee anything good will happen. Granted, goal setting is the first step, but taking action and completing steps 1-2-3 to the end is necessary to complete the whole process. And with the burgeoning staff sizes there are now numerous places to hide, coast and prove Peter was right all along.

I pretty much resisted the urge to “move up” throughout my coaching and teaching careers. That early poly sci course left a lasting impression. I always questioned myself—why am I doing this? And secondly, will I be able to make things “better?” While some of the offers were enticing, with more prestige and more money, the offers never seemed to balance the scale as far as swallowing a consistent level of frustration, aggravation and pointless meetings that were collectively enough of a turnoff to generate a polite, “No thank you.”

And anyway, I always thought, “What is the problem with doing a great job where you currently are?” Isn’t there life satisfaction and a benefit to the greater good in the knowledge that you know what you are doing and doing what you know? Whether it be teaching or coaching there is the opportunity to help dozens, if not hundreds of people reach their goals. There was always the possibility to tweak an old way or try something new and at the end of a season or semester look back with a critical eye to see what worked or what helped someone on the road to their potential.

Peter Laurence quotes the poet Alexandar Pope as saying that one’s pleasure and joy of life lies in “health, peace and competence.” The Japanese champion a concept called
which roughly translates as continuous improvement. It is a nice idea and would serve either group of individuals be they those with the ambitions of power, promotions and prestige or those who have simply found success in their niche and desire to make their little corner of the world a better place.