Peter, Laurence Johnston

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PETER, Laurence Johnston

(b. 16 September 1919 in Vancouver, British Columbia; d. 12 January 1990 in Palos Verdes Estates, California), author and lecturer best known for his philosophy known as "the Peter Principle," who made business theory accessible to the masses with wit, charm, and intellectual rigor.

Peter was the son of Victor C. Peter, an actor, and Vincenta Steves. Records of Peter's early life are scant, but apparently his father drowned when he was young. The family lived in a shack, and he spent his days working to help his family survive. Everything the Peter family had was functional, and Peter's lifelong interest in cutting waste in organizations and in streamlining tasks may stem from a childhood in which there could be no wasted motion and no wasted resources. Peter had to leave school for about four months because of "tuberculosis of the spine," which left him wearing a back brace for many years.

In 1938 Peter graduated from high school and enrolled in the University of British Columbia, where he took classes until 1954. From 1941 to 1947 he found jobs teaching industrial arts for schools in British Columbia. During this period he apparently began collecting the anecdotes that formed the cores of his best-selling books. He also married and divorced Nancy Bailey.

From 1947 to 1948 Peter worked for the provincial prison department, teaching youths who were in prison, and honing his skills at gaining and holding the attention of a reluctant audience. From 1948 to 1964 he was a mental health counselor for the Vancouver School district. From 1957 to 1958 he attended Western Washington State College (later named Western Washington University) in the United States, receiving a B.A. in 1957 and earning a M.Ed. in 1958. He then enrolled in the doctoral program in education at Washington State University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1963.

After receiving his doctorate, Peter was an assistant professor of education at the University of British Colombia, Vancouver, from 1964 to 1966. From 1966 to 1969 he was an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1967 Peter became the director of the Evelyn Frieden Center for Prescriptive Teaching, a job he held until 1970. On 25 February 1967 he married Irene J. Howe, with whom he had four children.

In the late 1950s Peter had begun to lecture about organizations and hierarchies. He first spoke on the Peter Principle in 1960, to an audience of businessmen who were either outraged or amused by his discussion of incompetence in business and government. In 1963 author Raymond Hull first heard of the Peter Principle. He attended a badly done play with Peter, and during intermission Peter explained how the play failed because its director had reached his "level of incompetence." Hull sensed a book in the making, urged Peter to write it, and then happily discovered that Peter had already spent many years writing such a book. Hull took the substantial manuscript and revised it into The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.

Hull and Peter first submitted the manuscript to McGraw-Hill, which had published Peter's academic book Prescription Teaching (1965). The publisher rejected The Peter Principle, with an editor declaring, "I can foresee no commercial possibilities for such a book and consequently can offer no encouragement." Thirty more publishers rejected the manuscript. Meanwhile, Peter was making a name for himself in the Los Angeles area as a public speaker, and the Los Angeles Times published a piece about him and the Peter Principle. Someone sent this article to a publisher in England, who then sent the article to an editor for the New York publisher William Morrow.

By then Peter's collaboration with Hull was years behind him, so it must have surprised him when a representative from William Morrow flew to Los Angeles to meet him and ask him to write a book about the Peter Principle. Like Hull years before, the publisher's representative was delighted to learn that the book had already been written. Morrow, which paid Peter and Hull a $2,500 advance, published The Peter Principle in 1969, the same year Peter advanced to the position of full professor. The first printing was a respectable run of 10,000 copies. The book quickly became a best-seller, and Morrow went through several printings in 1969, eventually publishing millions of copies. The Peter Principle became one of the best-selling nonfiction books ever, selling eight million copies in English in thirty years and being translated into thirty-eight languages.

Hull had made the crucial contributions of shortening the book to an acceptable length for a popular audience and of distilling Peter's considerable charm and satirical humor, making the book funny yet serious. Yet the essential appeal of The Peter Principle was the way it summed up the frustrations of millions of people who suffered with service employees who refused to serve, production workers who would not produce anything, teachers without enough sense to evacuate a room while it was flooding, and leaders who only followed—all because, as Peter wrote, "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."

Peter offered many examples from his experiences and firsthand observations to illustrate and support his principle. These examples were zany, but they were familiar to millions of readers. For example, he told of the time he sent a job application to a school, with every form filled out correctly, only to have it returned to him because there was a rule that it should be sent registered mail in order to be sure it arrived at the school intact.

For the rest of his life, Peter was offered jobs as a management consultant, but he turned them all down, saying that he chose not to rise to his own level of incompetence. He hoped that by understanding how one could advance beyond one's ability, one would choose to be happy by remaining at the job he or she felt best able to do. How to recognize that job when one had it was among the themes of subsequent books such as The Peter Prescription and How to Make Things Go Right (1972) and The Peter Plan: A Proposal for Survival (1975). Peter continued to publish more academically inclined works, such as the four-volume Competencies for Teaching (1975).

Although he made serious contributions to the study of teaching methods, Peter's reputation and fame stem primarily from his numerous books for general audiences, ending with Why Things Go Wrong in 1984. His sense of humor, his engaging storytelling, and his intelligence made his books long-term best-sellers that remained in print even after the start of the twenty-first century. In 1988 Peter suffered a stroke and soon afterward died at home from complications caused by the stroke.

All of Peter's books, even his most academic publications, are partly autobiographical, because they draw at least in part on his personal experiences. His book The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969), stems mostly from his firsthand experiences. His Why Things Go Wrong: or, The Peter Principle Revisited (1985) similarly offers autobiographical insights in the examples it presents. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times (all 15 Jan. 1990); and the Washington Post (17 Jan. 1990).

Kirk H. Beetz