The Peter Principle - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle

This tongue in cheek piece, which I came across recently while browsing through my archives, was originally written in 1985 during an idle moment in the Sultanate of Oman. I am sure many of my RAF contemporaries will identify with the content. I am not sure whether it accurately reflects current RAF practice – but I would not be surprised if it does.

Throughout the first four or five decades of the Royal Air Force’s life, the most senior ranks were always filled by graduates of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell – and they were always pilots. It was Viscount Trenchard himself, the Father of the Royal Air Force, who decreed back in about 1920 when serving as Chief of the Air Staff that all senior appointments should be filled by pilots. When not engaged on flying duties officers would be employed on the many non-flying general duties. Only pilots could understand and legislate on flying matters so it was inconceivable that a senior post should be filled by a non-pilot. To this day RAF aircrew officers belong to what is known as the General Duties (GD) Branch. Allegedly, once Cranwell-trained cadets had graduated and entered the big wide world of the real RAF they were continuously assessed for their potential to reach the very highest ranks.

Even Chiefs of the Air Staff had to start somewhere. Those young whippersnappers deemed most likely to attain star rank (that is air commodore and above) were given every opportunity to develop their talents by giving them the best jobs at each rank level. However, the system had to select ‘spares’, just in case the ‘stars’ failed to make the grade or dropped out along the way. It was an agreeable pastime in crew rooms debating whether or not you had in your midst a star or a spare. The ex-Cranwellians found such crew room banter really, really irritating, which of course made it all the more enjoyable for the perpetrators. In my time as a flying instructor at Cranwell in the late 1960s I reckoned to have identified several pairs – the stars and their spares. One particular pair, I still really cannot bring myself to name them, eventually proved the point: when I last met them, one had reached 3-star rank while the other had remained a flight lieutenant, six ranks lower. Both are now retired.

It became fashionable while I was stationed at Marham in the 1970s to claim that promotion in the officer ranks of the RAF was based on ‘The Peter Principle’. This principle was postulated by a Canadian educator called Laurence Peter in his book of that name published in 1969. So popular was the book that in the first 12 months after publication it was reprinted 15 times. Peter’s original words stated: ‘In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’. Someone else then adapted that to claim, presumably whimsically but possibly out of jealousy, ‘everyone rises to at least one level above that at which they are competent’, which, of course, does not have the same meaning as the original. Laurence Peter went on to add, ‘Useful work is accomplished only by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.’ That certainly bears thinking about!

The RAF is a hierarchical organisation. Officers’ promotion recommendations were almost always based on how well the subject officer had done in his current rank and appointment rather than his potential for advancement. What other way was there to do it short of having a system of paying for promotion? A GD flight lieutenant with a permanent commission on the General List who had done a good job could, therefore, expect to be promoted to squadron leader when he had the requisite seniority and if he had passed Promotion Examination C. If the reporting officer, and I was one from 1973 onwards, thought the subject deserved to be promoted immediately, irrespective of his seniority, he could make a Special Recommendation by ticking the appropriate box. There was also a particularly damning box which stated simply ‘Unlikely to become fit for promotion’. Spec Recs were, quite properly, few and far between and had to be endorsed by at least the next higher reporting officer and they usually had to be endorsed by the Air Officer Commanding if they were to be taken seriously by promotion boards.

Promotion recommendations frequently took no account of whether the reporting officer considered the subject likely to do well in the next higher rank, and there was nothing in the rules to say that it had to be otherwise. (That changed later - I forget when.) This was exactly what Lawrence Peter was saying in his book and no doubt explained the scathing, but totally justified, remarks often heard around Messes and crew rooms on the lines of: ‘How on earth did so-and-so get promoted to squadron leader/wing commander/etc.’, and also ‘so-and-so couldn’t lead a merry dance, never mind a squadron!’

The RAF’s Annual Confidential Reports on officers used to be precisely that – confidential. For many years during my time, reporting officers were actually forbidden to show the completed reports to the officers being reported on! Many junior officers never got any sort of debriefing on the content of their annual reports – I had very few. The official justification for maintaining strict confidentiality was that it allowed the reporting officer to be more honest in what he wrote, thereby resulting in a report more useful to the upper echelons. So much for reporting officers’ perceived integrity. However, in common with many reporting officers, I often showed the report I had written to the officer concerned. When, for one reason or another I did not do that, I interviewed the officer and, except on very rare occasions, quoted verbatim from the report. As a matter of fact, I can recall only two of those ‘very rare occasions’. Both concerned officers that I knew reacted badly to criticism and were likely to be insubordinate when I told them what I thought of them. In those two cases the squadron commander agreed to do the necessary counselling - and I assumed he did.

Eventually, a reporting officer at least two ranks higher than the subject had to report on whether the subject was considered likely to become suitable for promotion to two ranks higher than his current rank. It had to be two ranks higher because, for example, a squadron leader was not deemed competent to comment on whether a flight lieutenant was likely to become suitable for promotion to wing commander rank. Some folk might challenge that!

Because more General Duties officers were usually promoted to the rank of squadron leader or wing commander than the number of flying vacancies, there were never enough flying appointments for newly-promoted squadron leaders and wing commanders. However, many flight lieutenants, who for some reason had not gained promotion through the normal system, were given acting squadron leader rank instead. These given acting rank were chosen to fill specific appointments because they were deemed more suitable to hold down that post than any currently available officer with the substantive rank. Is it any surprise that many officers given promotion to acting-ranks were ex-Cranwellians?

A digression here, at the risk of annoying some now elderly, officers. At some date, in the early 1970s I think it was, the RAF decided that all their VC10 captains should be at least of squadron leader rank. The nature of their duties, flying world-wide in civilian airways and operating mainly away from home base, meant that they needed that rank. In other words, they virtually equated to airline captains. That was the justification. Thus, overnight, quite a few experienced VC10 captains were 'elevated' to the acting paid rank of Squadron Leader. It was understood that they would revert to their substantive rank of flight lieutenant when they ceased to be a captain on VC10s – although I not sure that any of them ever did. One day, a flight lieutenant on my squadron at Marham, grumpy at the best of times, was heard in the Officers’ Mess Bar at Marham asking a uniformed squadron leader he had not seen before, "Are you a real squadron leader or a VC10 captain?" The officer was in fact quite a senior ‘real’ squadron leader and the rude flight lieutenant was forced to go and apologise the following day.

Many squadron leaders never got a single flying appointment and they spent the rest of their career ‘flying a desk’. In that respect I was grateful to be appointed to a flying appointment a few weeks after I was promoted squadron leader. The fact that I was the only suitably qualified pilot immediately available to take over as Flight Commander Air on No 55 Squadron when a navigator was posted in as squadron commander, tempered my delight only very slightly. When, barely a year later, a vacancy occurred as Boss of the Victor Standardisation Unit, once again I was the only squadron leader available with all the essential instructor qualifications. At least I know that I got those appointments because I was properly qualified for them, not because of the Peter Principle.

Whilst I was running the Victor Standardisation Unit in the mid-1970s, I knew that it was almost certain to be my last flying appointment. The RAF had developed a fairly straightforward, and understandable, way of allocating flying jobs to officers of squadron leader rank and above. Although the precise details of the system were, as far as I know, never written down in the 1970s, the system seemed to work something like this, working down from the top.

To become the one and only Chief of the Air Staff you had to have served as a Commander-in-Chief.
To be a Commander-in-Chief, and there were only three or four depending on the year in question, the lucky, and undeniably talented, officer must have served as an AOC (Air Officer Commanding) of an operational group.

To be one of the few ‘flying’ AOCs, the officer must have served as Station Commander of a front-line flying station.

To be appointed to command a front-line flying station one must have served as the wing commander Boss of an operational squadron.

There were always far too many squadron leaders in flying appointments to give each of them a chance of running an operational squadron, just as there were too many officers at each higher level. This pyramid of talent made sense because it created a field of several candidates for each of the higher appointments. The officers ‘left over’ at each stage were either posted into less prestigious appointments, there were always lots of those, or they left the Service at the next convenient retirement age. Some were made redundant in one of the purges in the 1980s and 1990s. Some left early of their own accord – that was known as Premature Voluntary Retirement – which is what I eventually did. It has to be mentioned here that many perfectly competent squadron leaders never got even one flying tour.

Because of my own very varied early career even before I was commissioned, I was several years older than most other squadron leaders with similar seniority and I knew this was unhelpful for my promotion prospects. A further handicap was the fact that I was flying Victor Mark 1 aircraft almost until the day they were withdrawn from service in mid-1976. Thus, at the end of my flying tour I was not current on any aircraft remaining in service and so I waited anxiously to hear what my next appointment would be. As early as February 1976 I had been invited privately to visit British Aerospace’s Saudi Air Force Division at Warton in Lancashire to be briefed on current opportunities for flying instructors in their Company. I was told that I had all the desirable qualifications and experience. The pay was extremely good – and tax free! I thought about their offer for a few days and then turned it down because I really did not want to leave the RAF. For years afterwards I wondered if I had made a mistake. Now retired, and with the benefit of hindsight, I am satisfied that I made the right decision in 1976.

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