published Monday, December 10th, 2012

Smith: Knoxville and the Peter Principle

By Robin Smith
  • photo
    Robin Smith, former Chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party and congressional candidate.
    File Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press

There are lots of folks whose paths we cross in life who find themselves elevated to a position of authority. These individuals, if tested by the pressures of the position, will become a success or a failure.

University of Tennessee football has been a stage that provides a bit of wisdom -- applied knowledge -- in many areas of business, politics, sports and life in general. The drama there culminated last week with the hiring of former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones.

The less-than-stellar performance of the Tennessee Volunteers during the tenure of Derek Dooley was preceded by the big talk of Lane Kiffin. Both men are sons of successful coaches. Both men had experienced a measure of success before arriving in Knoxville.

Both men, however, came up short of the expectations heralded by their advanced promotions and hype.

Lane Kiffin spent only one season in the hills of Tennessee but, as the ESPN Southeastern Conference blog noted, his brief tenure "remains the gift that keeps on giving" after numerous NCAA compliance violations involving "major infractions." The sports website observed, "... the fallout from his [Kiffin's] utter destruction of that program continues" defining the "Lane Kiffin Era."

In other words, even three years after a big-talking, hyped coach strolled into a program steeped in tradition, the University of Tennessee Athletic Department is still paying the price for one who was willing to cut corners and ignore the importance of team morale and respect.

Then, UT hires legendary coach Vince Dooley's son, Derek, coming from a three-year head coaching stint at Louisiana Tech with an overall record of 17-20. Umm, yep, he was hired to be the head coach of a major SEC football program yet he had a losing record. Prior to LaTech, Derek Dooley had successfully been an assistant coach and seemed to excel with Coach Nick Sabin at LSU and later the Miami Dolphins.

The question that begs to be asked: "How do we end up selecting folks for positions of importance who fail miserably because of arrogance and character flaws or simply because they've got the right backers but the wrong skill set?"

Tennessee, my alma mater, has not played "team" football in years because the leadership there has not been up to SEC standards. The coaches have been mediocre and the culture of the program has followed suit.

In both the public and private relms, choosing the right leaders should always involve a pretty important word -- competence.

That pesky little word gets in the way of so many whose ambition is expansive. This exposes the fact that everyone, employee or leader, always rises to his level of incompetence.

The famed book "The Peter Principle" more than 4 decades old, was written as a satire about workplace incompetence but captured truths enduring the test of time.

Sadly, those who've exceeded their competence bring down an organization rather than strengthen and build it. Even worse are the ones who are pushed beyond their limits by those with a lust for position and power.

Whether it's coaching, a management position or a candidate for office, always ask, "Is this guy or gal competent, or am I dealing with a victim of the Peter Principle?"

Robin Smith, a consultant at Rivers Edge Alliance, is a wife and mother living in Hixson. She served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2007 to 2009.

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