The “Peter Principle” Revisited


In celebration of  its 20th year, has challenged us to think about the future.  Where should the field be 20 years from now?  I decided to look to the past, and specifically at one person, to learn from past experience about what has helped to move the field forward.

For almost 30 years, I have had the good fortune to watch Dr. Peter Adler as he successfully mediated and facilitated processes, led diverse organizations, and heightened the awareness and use of ADR on a local, national, and international level. I am privileged to call him a mentor and friend.  Peter is a frequent contributor to and you are probably aware of his many achievements and been challenged by some of his ideas.

Peter is one of a kind.  What is it that sets Peter apart and what has contributed to his success?  In this short article I try to identify some of what Peter does and how he does it.  I believe that through his unique set of talents and efforts, Peter has encouraged communities to become more aware of and use ADR processes and that contributes toward developing a more civil and democratic society.  We may use this as part of the blueprint for the next 20 years.

What Peter Does.  Have you seen that ubiquitous Energizer Bunny?  Peter and the Energizer Bunny have a lot in common.  The Energizer Bunny sometimes shows up when and where you least expect to see him, but he is very hard-working for a fictional character!

Although Peter is not in constant motion, he has an amazing energy level and he actively pursues different methods of teaching people about ADR and involving community members in ADR processes.  On any given day you may find Peter  teaching a class at the University of Hawaii, working on a book or writing an article about far reaching topics that intersect with ADR, or commenting  on pieces in the paper intended to encourage the use of consensus based decision making for important issues. He frequently proposes and leads facilitated processes himself and with others on complex policy issues that vex many.  Peter hosts conferences with attendees from around the world and learns and uses new technologies to bring them together.  His latest efforts are around fact finding strategies for problem solving. He proposes new ADR processes and retools the old ones to make them more effective.

In short, Peter fosters connections with people and helps them find solutions.  He serves as a bridge, essentially linking “town and gown.”  Doing well at any one of the methods or in any of the forums is an achievement, and one of the things that sets Peter apart is that he has a great track record of success.   

How Peter does it.  Peter has some personality traits that influence the way he works. Some of them are demonstrated in the way he interacts with people, and some in the way he approaches work and life.  Here are a few examples that stand out to me.

Some people focus on the “most important people” in the room — the ones with prestigious titles and perceived power.  Not Peter.  Hierarchies don’t really impress him, and as a consequence he doesn’t miss out on important information that other members of a group usually have.  Additionally, diverse groups of people feel good about participating in processes he designs, which leads to a better overall result.

Peter is slow to take offense, quick to forgive when mistakes are made, and he doesn’t seem to harbor resentments.  He moves away from  things or situations that do not work out while at the same time is quite confident in his expertise and judgments.

Peter is interested in trying new processes and refining old ones. He writes a lot about his experiences and freely shares his new and emerging ideas about what he has learned or is thinking about with colleagues so that they may use them as well.  Peter is not “territorial.”  He frequently calls on colleagues and encourages them to work with him and/or take on new projects and urges them to stretch themselves. 

Peter jokes that he has an inner child who never gets bored.  His sense of humor is a constant companion and helps colleagues and parties smile while negotiating  some very challenging situations.  It’s clear that he does not have enough time in the day to accomplish all the things that he wants to get done, yet he continues to  learn voraciously whether it is reading The New Yorker or a legal brief.

If we were building a bridge to connect Oahu to Maui, Peter would be the person who could imagine it, get others to visualize it, and put together a group to start the preparations.  He has a way of envisioning a future and putting together the realistic pieces to get it moving. He is forward thinking and has a positive and unique vision. 

Summing it up. This paper is about what Peter Adler does that works so well and what makes him such a great contributor to the field.  Think along the lines of the 1999 movie “Being John Malkovoich” and try to get into Peter’s mind to get a taste of how he uses his personality, expertise, knowledge, and wisdom. Peter is a great colleague who helps me and others push ourselves to do more things to support ADR to do things in better ways.  So the next time you hear someone talks about “the Peter Principle,” imagine instead a principle of effective performance on many different levels, and a person who has made a difference!  Let’s picture a new “Peter Principle” and try to channel that for the future.

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