Lessons in meritocracy from Gadaffi’s son

At a very stimulating dinner the other day, somebody told me an anecdote that happened to him “at Davos a few years ago”, when he was chatting (as one does) with one of the sons of then-dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

(I should say that the topic of conversation at the table was “meritocracy”, and whether the Chinese Communist Party might, surprisingly, be better at fostering it in its internal ranks than America’s allegedly transparent and hyper-democratic electoral systems.)

In any case, Gaddafi junior (I don’t know which one), said something like:

Do you want to know why Israel wins all the wars against Arabs? Because the Israeli army is meritocratic: they pick the generals that will win wars. In our armies, we pick the generals that will be the smallest threat to the boss.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it? And is applicable to a lot else, isn’t it?

48 thoughts on “Lessons in meritocracy from Gadaffi’s son

    • @Andreas,

      I would say that NO organization is run by (or with) the Peter Principle. In my opinion, the Peter Principle is a natural occurrence and should even be found in the Israeli Army. The Principle states: “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This assumes that the person has a limited competence level (or maybe we should say “has a maximum level of competence that is less than the highest position available.”

      For example, A person may be brilliant as a regional director of sales but the position of national sales director might be beyond his skills.

      Or a person may excel at running a group/team within an office but foul up the office if made the office manager.

      The reason that I see it as “naturally occurring” is that either of my example people could easily get promoted to those positions based on their performance at the lower position.

      A lack of willingness to demote, or a lack of ability to assess talent properly, may eventually hurt an organization and make it appear as if the Peter Principle is the operational philosophy.

    • The main problem with terms like Peter Principle or Andreas Fault is perpetual stigma they bestow upon the hapless bearers of these names. Why should an innocent child, solely by virtue of parental whim, be punished with a lifelong association with incompetence or natural disaster?

      At the very least they could have called it Patrick Principle, which alliterates equally nicely.

    • Cyberquill, what have you got against the Irish? 🙂 (You do know that whiskey was invented to keep us from taking over the world?)

      In doing some background on this, I learned something (from Wikipedia of all places!). Here:

      The same experience was described as early as 1767 by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in his comedy Minna von Barnhelm (3, 7): “Mehr als Wachtmeister zu werden? Daran denke ich nicht. Ich bin ein guter Wachtmeister und dürfte leicht ein schlechter Rittmeister und sicherlich noch ein schlechtrer General werden. Die Erfahrung hat man.”[6]

      Translated from German to English: “To become more than a sergeant? I don’t consider it. I am a good sergeant; I might easily make a bad captain, and certainly a worse general. People have had this experience.”

      Now, to me, that seems to be a self-imposed “Peter Principle” but it certainly pre-dates the book which brought the principle into popular culture. It was (and remains) an observed phenomenon. That is, it existed before it was defined and was given a name.

    • I suppose most phenomena existed before they were discovered and named, such as the phenomenon of understanding, which was later christened Roger. So now anytime we meet a Roger, we subconsciously assume he’s a real smart person who will understand everything.

      When I introduce myself, on the other hand, people think incompetence right off the bat. And when Andreas walks into a room, people instantly sense danger and run.

      And I have nothing against the Irish. I even flew Aer Lingus once. Given that I’m still here to tell the tale, it seems the pilot may not have risen to his level of incompetence quite yet, drunk though he probably was (being Irish and all).

  1. I think Gaddafi junior was wrong about why Israel won the wars. I think Israel won those wars because they were wars of survival for them. The Arabs were not fighting for survival. But he was probably right about the meritocracy aspect providing better generals. Of course, you might infer that I do not think better generals are the primary factor in who wins a war.

    • that’s the narrative, but not every war Israel has participated in has been a war for survival. I hardly see how the 1982 Lebanon War, for example, fits that dynamic.

    • Well, it’s not at all necessary that we agree that meritocracy was the ONLY reason Israel won those wars. You know, this was an aside at Davos, repeated to me at a dinner — a witticism.

      but there is a certain truth in it. As usual in such aphorisms, the insight was not primarily about the ostensible subject (Israel and Arabs) but about something larger, human nature.

    • @ Justin,

      I would not call the 1982 invasion of Lebanon a true war. It was an incursion into Lebanon to neutralize paramilitary and radical groups which were staging raids across the border into Israel. You might better choose the more recent fight between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. But, again, not a formal war.


      I agree with you and understood the witticism involved but I do not think my position is wrong. It is more likely that Gaddafi’s son was doing the usual… blaming the generals for losing wars and thereby absolving the political leaders of blame in choosing to fight.

    • It’s an understood mechanism of dictatorships, under the rationalist view, that incompetent and non-charismatic generals (and politicians) are chosen because they don’t threaten to replace the dictator. You don’t, that is, surround yourself with people who are able and connected enough to stage a coup. But sure, “Gaddafi’s son was just making excuses” is a fine interpretation, too.

      If we’re to disregard any conflicts where both sides don’t declare it as such, I still don’t see how the Israeli army performed any worse in 1967 than in 1948, where the 1967 position was a less desperate one. It just seems like you’re claiming a reductionist narrative must be totally wrong because it contradicts your reductionist narrative, when we might instead consider they both have merits and limitations.

    • @Justin,

      If we’re to disregard any conflicts where both sides don’t declare it as such, I still don’t see how the Israeli army performed any worse in 1967 than in 1948, where the 1967 position was a less desperate one.

      The ones I do not consider wars are the ones that are not against nations but against paramilitary groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and so on. These are not “formal” wars. When they occur within a nation’s borders they are called “insurrections”; at some point, these might end up being “civil wars” or “revolutions”. There is no name for them when there is border crossing involved.

      But all of Israel’s actual wars were about survival. The Arab states have stated many times their wish to “drive Israel into the sea.” The `67 war began with a preemptive attack. The Arab states were already massing troops in advance of hostilities. Israel apparently so no hope in negotiations and did not see a good reason to suffer an attack in order to have the moral “high ground.” This reasoning is disputed by many but the `67 war did not begin in a vacuum of hostilities.

  2. Yes it’s applicable to a lot–especially large organizations and corporations. And Gaddafi’s son is a good example of why that is allowed to continue–people carve out their niche in the organization and perpetuate the same thing.

  3. The full backing of the American military-industrial complex certainly helps. They didn’t get the most advanced military in the Middle East (if not the world) by merit alone. I bet I could win a war or two with it as well. But I agree with Qaddafi’s sentiment, and the larger point of this post, if nothing else.

    • Sure (see my answer to Douglas and Justin above): there were other reasons.

      That said, the Arabs got some help from the other superpower for some time.

      So perhaps, of all the factors, the relative meritocracy WAS the most interesting difference between the sides.

      After all, the American military-industrial complex also backed various other armies (South Vietnam?), and that did NOT lead to success.

    • Yeah, sorry, I was in a bad mood last night, and I responded argumentatively. Meritocracy certainly is important. Aphorisms are frustrating for me because I get distracted by the particulars, the ostensible subject as it were, and start thinking of all the things that falsify them, instead of seeing the important ways in which they are true. See also: Monomyth.

      An army that promotes those who consistently get the best results will win, maybe not every battle but most wars, against an army that promotes out of self-interest and fear, whims of fate notwithstanding. Strikes me, also, as a way to stifle creativity within your ranks, which isn’t going to help you on a dynamic battlefield.

    • Chris, see Soviet Union and WWII. Stalin had previously purged his officer ranks using political criteria (loyalty to Stalin, mostly) and had pretty much made a mess of it. Yet, through the assistance of the US (lend lease) and the willingness to sacrifice millions of soldiers, turned it around and successfully won on the eastern front.

  4. And the U.S. army puts a heavy emphasis on limiting collateral damage, which—while certainly the laudable and humane thing to do, even if driven by PR concerns rather than by a genuine concerns for the innocent—also may retard progress as far as taking out the bad guys.

    I recently watched an Austrian TV comedy, made in 2009, in which an intoxicated surgeon mistakenly operated on the wrong knee of one of Gadaffi’s son’s who had injured himself while vacationing in Vienna. Moral of the story: it is not advisable to commit medical malpractice on a Gadaffi!

  5. huh,

    by this logic my gentle baby cousin, the dorky genius mathematician is very meritorious. it’s a standing half-joke that if he told us what he did for Musad, he’d have to kill us.

    • Well, he may have to kill you yet. But it’s not about being “meritorious” (an individual trait) but about being “meritocratic” (a collective trait of rewarding meritoriousness).

      Mossad, therefore, being meritocratic, really is likely to give him reason to have to kill you….

  6. wait a minute…

    isn’t there something historically inaccurate about this post? i have been OCD clicking since you posted. i think i have it.

    because israel has always been an army of conscription, and they are/were willing and able to con-scribe any jew from any where (up until recently), the IDF has a large pool of “peoples army” to cull their “elite forces”.

    so, i think that i think that i agree with douglas. the “we can’t afford to lose a War” mentality is much more relevant than the meritocracy idea you’ve been talking about. ratio of 10 million hostile muslims to 1 million (hostile?) jews surrounding the country?

    (don’t forget, i’m pacifist and come from muslim bloodline also)

    any historians out there care to fact check me?

    • You’re saying that conscription armies will tend to beat professional armies.

      But by that logic, America’s military would have to start losing to conscription armies. I doubt that.

    • Andreas, there were some who said that America began winning WWII once the draftees became the majority and began moving up in the officer ranks. The theory was that the draftees wanted to win the war more because their lives (unlike the careerists) had been interrupted by the war. I am not so sure that was true and I cite George Patton as my prime example.

  7. no, i was unclear.

    i was trying to say that for a long time the IDF was a “peoples army” all conscription and NOT a meritocracy. this was during the time when most of their “wars” as opposed to whatever else people are speaking about.

    it became a meritocracy within the last twenty years or so? (fact checker please) and because they had such a large pool of conscripted soldiers from which to choose/promote the “Elite Forces” were effective.

    the best and the brightest don’t always volunteer. it’s one of your own theories, the meritocracy system has to go hand in hand with the conscription because you want the widest variety of soldiers to choose from.

    am i historically accurate, that the meritocracy system was implemented only recently? therefore their early success in war was more likely to do with “we can’t afford to lose” mentality.

    • I would say that a meritocracy can exist within a conscript military. The meritocracy part comes into play involving promotions. For example, when I was in the U.S. Navy, there was an active Selective Service. Though people were not drafted into the Navy (there were, however, instances of “volunteering” for Naval or Marines once drafted), The system of promotion was the consistent throughout all branches of service. You underwent testing (enlisted ranks) or evaluations (officer ranks) which had objective guidelines and standards which had to be met. At a certain level, politics might rear its ugly head but these were internal politics (much like you find in corporations). My brother-in-law (retired colonel, US Army) does not agree with me on this but most other officers I have talked to do agree.

    • yes, thank you douglas,

      no doubt the IDF is a meritocracy within a conscripted army. i just don’t know historically when the meritocracy became more important.

      now, they have many people exempt from service, so i would imagine the meritocracy system is even more important. my other cousin, although a doctor by trade, stayed in service until he became a “five-falafel” general. (assuming the rank/rewards for serving were part of his motivation)

    • Unless the Israeli military selected officers and promoted in rank by fiat of the political leaders, I’d say it was always a meritocracy. That is, was there a time when officers did not get promoted based on some criteria of performance but rather according to the favor of the higher echelon? Perhaps we should define what a meritocracy is:

      “Meritocracy, in the first, most administrative sense, is a system of government or other administration (such as business administration) wherein appointments and responsibilities are objectively assigned to individuals based upon their “merits”, namely intelligence, credentials, and education,[1] determined through evaluations or examinations. ”

      Unless the officer corps is appointed based on some non-essential criteria such as social standing, family connections, or political influence, it’s likely it is a meritocracy.

  8. @ Douglas, now i’m confused.

    isn’t that the way the U.S. military system works and many others? perhaps the problem is the “is vs ought” thing? perhaps i should not have entered the discussion without a better knowledge of global military structures.

    anyhow, i still don’t agree with the premiss that the main reason for IDF success is that it’s a meritocracy.

    thanks for an interesting topic andreas.

    • I would say that, at least at the levels below the top generals and admirals, all military systems are now meritocracies. At some point in history, most militaries allowed people to buy commissions (officer status) or could inherit them.Incidentally, that is why they are called “commissioned” officers. A “commission” is like a contract. Modern Israel has always had a meritocracy, as far as I know, though the initial military leaders may have been appointed. The American military is, and has been for well over a hundred years, a meritocracy. I am reasonably sure the Libyan military, below the highest ranks, was a meritocracy. I am not informed well enough to be positive but it would make sense. Not even a mad dog dictator wants to be appointing non-commissioned officers and lower ranked commissioned officers. I would guess that what the Gaddafi son meant was that attaining the highest ranks in their military meant showing loyalty to Gaddafi first and competence in command came second (or was not even a factor).

      Still, an incompetent but loyal general might find himself being executed, or replaced, for failing to win a battle (or a war).

  9. Fascinating discussion, as always. But perhaps we (understandably) got stuck too much on armies, and Israel’s. The context of the dinner was actually a comparison of China’s attempts to have a meritocracy inside its single party with America’s faith in meritocracy arising naturally from “democracy”. The Gadaffi quote was sort of inserted as a joke, or the punch line to a joke.

    • Are you trying to herd cats again? I would describe what China is doing as similar but in this way…

      China is attempting to add a level of private enterprise to a centralized socialist economy. It is something that the former Soviet Union tried to do (in desperation, I think) in its last years in the vain attempt to avoid its collapse.

      China may well succeed. But it’s a gamble, the increased private enterprise may lead to a stronger push for individual freedom.

    • @Douglas: Actually, the context of our discussion at dinner was slightly different. Several researchers were saying that we in the West fail to understand Chinese governance today. We see a one-party state and see a lack of competition. In their view, the party IS the political spectrum, and competition occurs within it, with an intensity that EXCEEDS that in the two-party American political system.
      They then explained the many layers of meritocratic selection. Basically, the party has an Organisation Department that gets daily and weekly polling from the street level (“Are you happy with your garbage collection?”) to the municipal and on up. They promote talent the way Silicon Valley venture capitalists invest in start-ups.
      The fact that all of this is opaque to the outside is its strength. So we discussed that. (It is still my opinion that the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia would have failed if it had not been opaque, ie secret.) So we, always paying fealty to “transparency”, cannot comprehend the Chinese meritocracy.

    • @Andreas

      Let me offer up front that understood Communist systems t be akin to large and diversified corporations. That is, the country is a corporation with the government being akin to a complex board of directors. Now, within the system, there will be a system for promotion which will likely be based on merit up to the top administrators. The top administrators may be selected by political standing and loyalty and/or by influence and connections. Or they might be selected by merit, earned by good performance and results at lower positions. I do not know how the Chinese system actually works in that regard so I am speculating.

      Meritocracies are not limited to democracies or even free enterprise systems. And sometimes these do not actually have meritocracies at anything above mid-level management. This is one of the reasons I offered the definition for a meritocracy. It can be completely independent of the political system.

      I think many in the West do fail to understand the Chinese system of government. And their economic enterprise.

      In single party systems, there is plenty of political competition. They just do not have a “loyal opposition” because they allow no other political party. But they do hold elections, I believe, and people do vie for the various political offices.

      Am I far off?

    • @Andreas, you should really do a column for The Economist on that topic (or a blog post). Unless of course you or a colleague has already, in which case, can you link it?

  10. Communism, capitalism, democracy, meritocracy, same basic premise, run by selfish or power-hungry human beings, but for some strange reasons it is the only thing that drives progress. Narcissism affects us all, we have become masters at and nonchalantly dismissing our major flaws.

    PS I love my 7 month year old son, I hope he will get to experience the awakening of humanity

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