Four Subtle Reasons Why Mastery Eludes Us

Incompetence is alive and well through out the world — we are surrounded by people who can’t play their role, who botch their lines on the stage of life and business. Besides the normal suspects such as managers and politicians, sometimes mothers and fathers don’t have what it takes. 


by Murray Johannsen, May 9, 2016.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin,  or by  email.


It’s been estimated that 50 percent of those on the managerial track will see their careers derailed. (Civil Service College, 2010). Even entrepreneurs fair no better. Various sources have estimated that the five-year survival rate hovers around 50%. This is due to a number of different factors.

Four Problems With Getting To Mastery

Problem 1: The Peter Principle 

Something bad creeps into long established businesses and government agencies despite their best efforts to keep it out. It’s like invisible kudzu gumming up the wheel of progress. Peter (1996) referred to this as the Peter Principle.

The short version goes, “In a large organizational hierarchy, employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” We shouldn’t be surprised to discover incompetent bosses growing like an algae bloom in the bay. I saw this early in my training career.

When I was doing Total Quality Management training, one of my clients happened to be three partners who had grown their privately held business to over 150 employees. Not bad. They had started years back as three individuals: one doing the business stuff, one running the machines, and one who did the engineering.

While the organization had grown, they had not completely stepped into their new roles. They still did what they loved to do, not what they needed to do to grow the business.

You would see the President spending most of his time hunched over a table crafting designs, the VP of manufacturing still running his favorite CNC machine making parts, and the VP of operations still running everything else.

You might say that the three partners were very successful in that they grew an enterprise, made lots of money along the way, and sold it when they wanted to retire. But at another level, they failed to reach their potential since two out of the tree failed to play their roles properly.

2. Dunning-Kruger Effect

What’s interesting about this effect is that the incompetent fail to recognize that they’re incompetent. It’s easy to see janitorial incompetence when the floors aren’t being swept and the trash accumulates in the wastebasket. And it’s not so much a disaster if a package gets sent to the wrong address by the shipping clerk.

But it’s a huge problem if that person happens to be the alpha male or female. It’s hard to know when a president or CEO is incompetent since they are so good at faking it. Even when this becomes common knowledge and the board acts, CEOs typically leave with golden parachutes (Kloeffler, 2012). Not a bad job if you can get it.

Problem 3: Illusory Superiority 

Essentially illusory superiority is thinking that you are better than you are. You have probably heard this one before. A study might indicate that, “Eighty percent of men believe they have better than average communication skills.”

A related problem is known as the Downing Effect. This describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to imagine their intelligence is better than it really is. I wonder if this might describe many politicians.

Problem 4: False Mastery

Skills vary tremendously in terms of the amount of time and effort needed to achieve mastery. Some are low effort. Tying your shoelaces is one example. Learning how to make a positive first impression takes less than 30 minutes. Practicing 10 or 15 times gets you close to mastery.

But some skills take a vast amount of time to achieve mastery, even if you extrude aptitude backed with a gargantuan dose of talent. It takes thousands of hours to become a charismatic speaker, get a 7th degree black belt, become a chess master, or perform a flawless tea ceremony.

False mastery is the delusion whereby someone thinks they have mastered something. We have all known newly minted MBAs who think they know how to manage; and master’s degrees in leadership who now think they have mastered leadership. Oops, I forgot the communications major that can’t communicate. The list is endless.

References and Resources

Kadampa, Luana (N.D). Want Peace of Mind? Get Rid of Your Delusions. Extracted on 10 May 2016.

Kloeffler, Dan (2012). Golden Parachutes: 21 CEOs Landed $100M Plus. ABC News, January 27.

Peter, Lawrence (1996). The Peter Principle. Buccaneer Books.

Singapore Civil Service College (2010). Understanding Managerial Derailment, A Research Study by the Leadership Development Center.

Wikipedia, (N.D.) Dunning-Kruger Effect, Extracted May 10, 2016

Wikipedia (N.D.) Illusory Superiority. Extracted on May 10, 2016

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