Why do People End Up in Leadership Roles they Don’t Deserve?

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Written By Kevin

The insights I gained over the years help me lead and motivate teams to achieve business and operational goals. Allow me to share my learnings with you.

One of the most critical aspects of employment that employees feel needs to change, is toxic management. According to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, when asked why they were looking for new jobs, American employees were more likely to claim poor leadership and an unfavorable work environment than to say they wanted a higher wage. 

Even if you find a competent manager, they may still face challenges from weak supervision or higher-ups who hinder their ability to effectively lead and manage their team. 

The business world is not devoid of capable managers, even companies like Google and Apple, which pride themselves on offering their workers excellent working circumstances, have been called out for what some call toxic leadership. In this blog post, we will look more at this problem and how you can avoid it altogether.

The Problem 

Let’s look at a few noticeable issues that need to be resolved before anything else. 

In an ideal world, managers would either be promoted into their positions after demonstrating strong proficiency in the roles they manage or recruited based on their qualifications and experience, in part, comparable to the roles they oversee. 

Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios is always the case. Some managers do not deserve their position, and should not have been given the role in the first place.

There are various principles that try and explain why this would happen. We will be looking at 3 of the most popular principles here.

The Dilbert Principle

The Dilbert principle, popularized by cartoonist Scott Adams, is among the most pressing problems facing businesses today.

The Dilbert principle states that employees who aren’t bad enough to be fired are instead moved up the corporate ladder into management positions. This often does not happen straight up, but through a series of lateral moves that set up Dilberts for future promotions. 

Hard to believe right? Let’s see how this would work in practice.

Suppose Dilbert is working as a research analyst but is constantly making code mistakes that cause their team’s productivity to drop. In that case, their boss may transfer them to a non-operational position. 

Let’s say this Dilbert is tasked with assisting new hires by showing them around the office and instructing them on how things work. In a regulated environment, this is an innovative management technique to find a role for these people in jobs they can do well. 

The issue, however, occurs when managerial opportunities become available. Dilbert would have a leg up on his presumably more qualified co-workers in this scenario since, besides having done the same business analyst work as everyone else, they were also responsible for onboarding new staff, which is an important competence for a future manager.

The Peter Principle:

Another principle, known as the Peter Principle, looks at this from a different angle but with the same outcome leading to inefficient persons in leadership roles. 

Lawrence J Peter, a prominent archaeologist, formulated this theory and wrote a book by the same name. According to this belief, good workers will continue to rise through the ranks until they are promoted to a position they cannot adequately accomplish. When someone reaches that stage, they are not encouraged and are forced to stay in their current job. 

For junior analysts to be considered for a team leader position, they must perform above and beyond their colleagues for several years. Their performance as team leaders may determine whether or not they are promoted to project manager work. If they are poor at completing projects with tangible outcomes, however, the company will never enable them again, and a mediocre performer will remain in this position indefinitely. 

Michael from the popular TV series, The Office, is an excellent example of this. The storyline is that he was so successful at selling that they had to promote him to regional manager. The problem was that he didn’t have the aptitude or temperament for the job, so he stayed in it for a very long time despite being a miserable presence and a significant source of stress for his subordinates.

Founder Syndrome

Founder Syndrome is another issue that plagues many modern-day organizations. It refers to the situation where the founder of a company is unable to relinquish control, which ultimately leads to micromanagement and stifles growth. 

Founders may have the vision and drive to start a company, but as the company grows, it requires different skills to manage it effectively. Hence, it is essential for them to recognize when it is time to let go and bring in people with the required skills to take the company to the next level.


Toxic leadership can be detrimental to any organization, and it is essential to recognize its signs early on. A positive work environment and strong leadership are vital to the success of any organization. Therefore, it is essential to invest in leadership development programs and provide support and training to your managers to ensure they have the skills required to lead their teams effectively. 

Additionally, recognizing the pitfalls of the Dilbert Principle, the Peter Principle, and Founder Syndrome can help companies avoid falling into these traps and ensure that they have a productive and efficient workforce that is empowered to take the organization to greater heights.

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