Provision #275: Read Your People

Laser Provision


Does the “Peter principle” play itself out in your organization? Are people promoted to their highest level of incompetence? It doesn’t have to be that way. In this Provision, Coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins talks about the importance of learning how to read, position, and motivate people for success.

LifeTrek Provision


This week’s featured coach is Joe Gibbs, who at the age of 40 had never held a head coaching job. At that point, and in that profession, there was a good chance it might never happen at all. But a successful 1980 season as the offensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers made him the head coaching choice for the Washington Redskins in 1981. Two seasons later, Gibbs drove the Redskins to their first Super Bowl victory.

Let that be a lesson to us all! It’s never too late to be successful. Good work does not go unrecognized forever. Those who handle small things well end up being asked to handle bigger things. And those who handle big things well end up being asked to handle really big things.

When this continues indefinitely, we see the “Peter principle” coming into play: successful people keep getting promoted to higher levels of authority and responsibility until they end up being promoted just once too often, beyond their highest level of competence. Here they become more of a sticky problem than a star performer.

But it doesn’t have to work that way. The “Peter principle,” named after its formulator, Laurence J. Peter, describes a common but not inevitable scenario. People promote people. Knowing how to read people can help you position and motivate people so as to stop the “Peter principle” dead in its tracks.

That’s apparently what happened with Joe Gibbs and the Washington Redskins. When the owner and general manager decided to make Gibbs as the head coach, they saw something in him • let’s call it the right stuff • that would produce a ten-year dynasty with three Super Bowl victories. Interestingly, when Gibbs was later asked about the secret of his success he pointed to the same ability • you have to know how to read, position, and motivate people.

“You don’t win with X’s and O’s,” Gibbs observes, “you win with people. You’ve got to pick the right players to fit your system. That’s what makes a player great. It’s not just raw talent. It’s talent in the right role. That’s when the whole becomes a lot better than the part, and having a star. It’s very important the way everything fits together, and many times it’s the role player that for us was a real key. He couldn’t even play for somebody else, but we found a way to use him and let him do his one thing for us.”

Talk about stopping the “Peter principle” dead in its tracks! This man knew how to recruit and position people for success. A running back would not become the quarterback just because he was a great running back. Success in one area would not automatically lead to promotion in another area. Gibbs promoted people to their highest level of competence, and no further. The challenge is to keep people motivated to perform their best in those positions, day after day and season after season. Gibbs understood and rose to this challenge as well.

“To be successful,” Gibbs reflects, “we had to be able to lift people up at the right time and to knock them down at the right time. Chew their rear at the right time. There’s got to be a feel to that, and that’s one thing lots of times where we miss as coaches.”

“I tell people, it doesn’t matter how good they look, what kind of a coordinator they are, how well they are with X’s and O’s, what their background is. Because when they get shifted into that role of being a head coach, what they now have to be able to do, one of the most important things is to talk to the team, communicate to that team, and you’ve got to have a feel. It’s just a natural feel of when to get on them and when to back off; when they need to be lifted up. A team is a lot like a person. Sometimes they’re suffering from a lack of self-confidence. They just don’t think they can do it. You’ve got to be able to pick them up.”

“Sometimes, they’re over confident. You’ve got to be able to knock them down. Sometimes they need their butt chewed. You’ve got to chew it. And you can’t teach that in coaches. That’s not written someplace, and you’re not going to get that. You either have that with people, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you may reach a certain plateau, but I don’t think you’re going to be an exceptional coach unless you have that ability.”

To really defeat the “Peter principle” you have to learn how to read, position, and motivate your people. When you put people in the right place at the right time, when they know, deep down, that they have what it takes to handle a challenging job, when they embrace their position as the position from which they can make a great contribution, it’s easy to motivate them to give their very best. When you position people too high or low in an organization, they either end up filled with anxiety (because it’s too challenging) or with boredom (because it’s not challenging enough). That’s when motivation becomes a real problem and productivity dips.

So how do you apply this wisdom in order to become more successful in your own life? You learn how to read people. You don’t just learn how to assess their skills and character; you also learn how to read their emotional intelligence, behavioral style, and cognitive ability. You learn how to read their way of being in the world. Joe Gibbs thinks this can’t be taught. And he may be right about that. But it can be learned.

By identifying and paying attention to critical variables, most people can learn how to read people better. Listening is a habit that can be developed and improved over time. LifeTrek coaches often work with people in this regard. We don’t teach them to read people better; we simply assist them to better identify, pay attention to, and listen for the critical variables. We assist them to see a bigger picture. Once that happens, the learning curve ramps up and success is often right around the corner.

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.


This week’s issue was EXCELLENT!!!!!!!!!!! I like your suggestions to stay away from the Whites • they did a study and found in Canada that white flour led to “insanity” in rats. Hmm. Enough said. Anyway • the only one that seemed odd on the list was “banana” • high index or not • there are a great deal of benefits in the banana. Thanks so much for sharing • it was great! (Ed. note: I debated about throwing the banana into the list, because there certainly are benefits. But I wanted people to know that some fruits are high glycemic foods.)


Regarding your “White Flight #142” Wellness Pathway I would add that high glycemic index foods aren’t always bad guys related to health. In fact, there are times where a high glycemic index food is desirable…during and after endurance sports comes to mind where you need a quick boost of blood sugar and to speed the recovery process. As you know, bagels and bananas are staples at the finish line area of most endurance events. (Ed. note: Indeed, I do know about finish line food! Note, however, that protein is better after endurance sports, for recovery, while high glycemic foods are better during and before the event, for energy.


I enjoyed reading your weekly provision. Good motivating thoughts. Sometime back I delivered an inspirational speech here in Saudi Arabia entitled “The Pentagon Pyramid,” based on five important qualities required in life: “Practice, Passion, Persistence, Patience and Politeness.” Your last Provision, “Love the Game,” reminded me of what I said on passion:

Proverbs says, “He freezes who does not burn” and that speaks about the second aspect of my pyramid, i.e., “passion.” Passion is the tinder that ignites action. A man without passion is spiritually dead. He has no glow or spark within him. Do you know how peasants buy cattle? They simply lift the tail. The cattle who have no mettle in them offer no resistance. But those who have mettle jump at them in protest. The peasants choose the latter. Similarly, those who have no grit and passion within them are like rice soaked in milk, soft and cringing. No strength within! No capacity for sustained effort! No power of will. They become failures in life.


I have been enjoying LifeTrek on my Palm for the last year and love. It is a great inspiration!



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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