The leaders we deserve?

Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom


Over the years, many of us have must have looked at our own bosses and wondered how they ever became leaders. We all recognise the profile; bereft of strategic thinking, enmeshed in local and personal considerations, unable to see the horizon of opportunities, antagonistic, incapable of inspiring others, lacking a vision, unable to consider consequences and options, incapable of making informed decisions, uncaring and ignorant of how to engage with and motivate followers. Poor leaders deliver a toxic long-term legacy, which affects team members and followers, and ultimately, impacts the bottom line of the organisation, team or unit. The typical traits of poor leaders (Leviticus, 2017) include:

  • Lack of communication;
  • Tendency to micromanage;
  • Unclear expectations;
  • Intimidation and bullying; and
  • Poor people skills.

Many of our appointed leaders would appear to exhibit such symptoms, causing untold damage to organisations. Management scholar Laurence J. Peter reasoned that people rise to their level of incompetence. Selection to higher office and new positions is often based on performance in previous assignments. The Peter Principle suggests that people rise, or get promoted, until they reach a job they cannot really manage, leaving many individuals to operate at their ‘level of incompetence’.

In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” (Peter & Hull, 1969, p. 36)

Inevitably, therefore:

Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence“. (ibid.)

The Peter Principle became an international best seller, selling well over a million copies. The original manuscript had been rejected by 30 publishers, before William Morrow & Company accepted it and printed a small run of 10,000 copies. The book made it into the New York Times best-seller list, selling over 200,000 copies in the first year. It has since been translated into 38 languages.A generalised form of the Peter Principle asserts that anything that works will continue to be utilised in the exact same format, in increasingly more demanding contexts and applications, until it ultimately fails. The temptation is to develop a habit that keeps replicating exactly what has worked previously and impose it on new situations as they are encountered.

Ironically, Peter and Hull also noted that highly competent individuals may struggle to progress through the system.

“In most hierarchies, super-competence is more objectionable than incompetence.” (ibid.)

Peter and Hull duly warned that extremely skilled and productive employees often face criticism, and are fired if they don’t start performing worse as their presence ‘disrupts and therefore violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: the hierarchy must be preserved.’

A crisis of leadership

In an increasingly uncertain world, leaders are called upon to deliver both hope and change. When there is a need for a clear direction, followers turn to their leaders for the courage to make the right decision and the inspiration and assurance that allow followers to believe.

Many of the leaders we encounter in all spheres of life place their desire to be right above the wish to achieve the right outcome. Ego boosts, quests for power and the thirst for greed are often confused with leadership.

As a result, many followers, citizens and workers remain concerned by the apparent lack of leadership skills. The World Economic Forum identified lack of leadership as one of the major global challenges facing the world in 2015, and commissioned a survey to investigate further. A staggering 86% of respondents worldwide agreed that there is currently a global leadership crisis.

The figures divided by region support the global perception of the problem, with respondents acknowledging a leadership crisis divided by continent and region as follows:


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower and other publishers in the Routledge family.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK



Darren Dalcher, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. In October 2011 he was awarded a prestigious lifetime Honorary Fellowship from the Association for Project Management for outstanding contribution to the discipline of project management. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has delivered lectures and courses in many leading institutions worldwide, and has won multiple awards and prizes. He has written over 200 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering and published over 30 books. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Software: Evolution and Process published by John Wiley. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series, Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, a Senior Member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, and the British Academy of Management. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board.  Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal.  He can be contacted at [email protected]

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.