Even though Laurence J. Peter said he was kidding when he wrote The Peter Principle in 1968, we continue to see it over and over again in the workplace.

The Peter Principle:

In a Hierarchy, Every Employee Tends to Rise to Their Level of Incompetence.

So what happens when you find yourself, recently promoted, in a situation where your new leader is vastly incompetent at leading? Every leadership book, workshop, or strong leadership example you’ve ever seen teaches and exemplifies the exact opposite of what your new leader is doing.

I’ve had numerous clients in this situation, and fortunately, they possessed exceptional leadership skills. That’s what it takes to follow a leader who doesn’t know how to lead. What am I talking about, you wonder? Here are just a few examples of poor leadership behaviors:

  • Is a poor communicator and makes no effort to obtain buy-in
  • Exemplifies a ‘do as I say or get out’ attitude
  • Never communicates a clear vision
  • Doesn’t allow for input from people impacted by the decision 
  • No recognition of people 
  • Taking credit for the achievements of others

I could go on.

Instead of focusing on the poor leadership above you, the best way to survive and thrive is to be the best leader for your team.

Leadership Questions

To be the best leader for your team, focus on your behaviors, professional development, and your team’s development. I’ve found that using various coaching questions in this area helps a leader pinpoint where they want to focus. Here are a few:

  • How would your leadership behavior differ if you were following an excellent leader?
  • What are the most important things your team needs to focus on to be successful?
  • How can you exemplify excellent leadership skills in any situation?
  • Which leadership skills do you want to demonstrate every day?
  • How can you develop your team?
  • What does your team need from you?


Be A Good Translator

As the team leader, it’s your job to translate between upper management and your direct reports anyway. Regardless of any poor leadership traits demonstrated by upper management, it’s your job to understand their expectations of your team and to translate those expectations clearly. 

Often in leadership, you’re privy to information that cannot be shared widely throughout the organization. You have to be a good soldier and keep that information to yourself, yet motivate and inspire your team to perform. That’s part of the translation as well.

Sometimes you may need to acknowledge your team’s feelings and beliefs because of poor leadership by upper management. Allow them to vent and process the situation, but don’t allow them to stay immersed in the drama. Focus their efforts on the things they can control. Encourage them not to let someone else influence their behavior or reaction. By focusing on what’s in their control, they can stay productive and positive in a stressful situation.

One way to help your team members focus in this way is to ask them:

How would your reaction be different if everything was perfect?

This question allows them to focus solely on their reaction and what they can do instead of the situation’s drama.

Stick to your integrity

Above all, never let someone else’s leadership get in the way of your integrity. If you can step in and make up for leadership downfalls, by all means, do it. However, if you’re required to take action that goes against everything you believe in, then you’ve got to think it through. 

  • Is this organization still a good fit for you?
  • Can you align with the mission and vision?
  • What is staying in this role costing you in the long run?
  • How do you continue to benefit from this role?
  • Can you look at yourself in the mirror and feel good about your actions each day?

If upper management is challenging you to sacrifice your integrity to continue in your leadership position, you will most likely be looking elsewhere soon. See my blog on “Knowing When to Leave.”


Lynn Zettler is an Executive and Leadership Coach specializing in helping to create amazing leaders with excellent communication skills, exemplary accountability cultures, and impactful strategic plans.

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