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What puts the cap on your capacity?

Which instrument do you play?

When I was a child I used to listen to my mum practising and playing her violin every evening, and as I grew up I knew that I wanted to try my hand at that too.  I started learning piano at 5 and I soon discovered that wasn’t to be my instrument, and I started to play the violin aged 8 and I still play today.

I started out at the back of the violin section, and gradually progressed until I was the Leader of my University Orchestra.  Today I am a member of my local amateur Symphony Orchestra, and earlier this year I had the delight of playing in a concert where the soloist was performing the Sibelius Violin Concerto – a personal favourite and a splendid virtuoso performance for sure.

Soon after graduating I started my career as a Control Systems Design Engineer in a Project Engineering environment for an international Tyre Manufacturer.  Here, if you wanted to get on and advance your career, that path inevitably took you towards a position of Project Manager.  I had a colleague that I’ll call Steve who was always in demand for any project to design the electrical hardware for the control circuitry since his designs were always technically accurate and compliant, always cost effective and could be relied on to work without modification.  For a project manager who was working to meet demanding cost, quality and time objectives in a competitive environment, that was one part of the project that she wouldn’t have to worry about.

Steve was excellent at his job and enjoyed his work, and as many others like him he was keen for promotion and advancement and quickly progressed from designer to senior designer.  He knew that he was good at his job and that he was respected and well liked by his management team, and when he was offered a promotion to become a Project Manager he was delighted that he would be able to accept this new role with the extra salary that it offered.

However, as a project manager, Steve was abysmal.  The projects that he managed were always late and overspent, and it seemed that however hard he tried he couldn’t make a project come in on time and within budget.  Steve had found that he had become another victim of the Peter Principle.

The Peter Principle is a management theory described first in 1969 by Laurence J. Peter. In it, he states that employees “… rise to the level of their incompetence” and is based on the notion that excellent performance is inevitably rewarded by promotion.  This process continues, accompanied by a decline in excellence, until the employee is no longer excellent, or even satisfactory in their new role.

The Peter Principle

I have known several colleagues who have found themselves in a similar position, and indeed I have found myself there on occasion too.

John Maxwell writes about a similar concept called “the Law of the Lid’ in his book “The 21 irrefutable laws of Leadership”.  Here he states that “Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organisational effectiveness.”  Steve found that although his ability to lead others worked well in a technical environment with which he was familiar, it was capped when he moved to another environment where he had to lead a team of experts in different fields.

Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organisational effectiveness.”
~ John Maxwell

Maxwell observes that effectiveness is a combination of leadership ability and success dedication, and asserts that the level of effectiveness is a combination of both parameters.  For example, someone that is already working at a level 8 in success dedication in their chosen field, yet only has a leadership ability of a 1 has a level of effectiveness as shown below.

To progress further by increasing their success dedication can only result in small gains.  Another option, however, is that by working on their leadership ability and moving from a 1 to say 6, they could raise their effectiveness significantly without needing to increase their success dedication at all.

This brings me back to the question “Which instrument do you play?”.  For those that have seen the famous screenplay describing the career of Steve Jobs you may remember the lines of the following dialogue between the Apple co-founders (also both named Steve):

Wozniak: You can’t write code, you’re not an engineer, you’re not a designer, you can’t put a hammer to a nail … So how come 10 times in a day, I read “Steve jobs is a genius.” What do you do?
Jobs: I play the orchestra.

Jobs had developed his leadership lid to the level that enabled him to create a company that leads the world in innovation with new products for many years, and performed at a level that many would aspire to.

All of us can work on developing our leadership ability – learn to play the “Leadership instrument” better – and thereby increase both our personal and organisational effectiveness.  What do you need to do today to develop your leadership skills and learn to play your leadership instrument more effectively?

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.