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The Peter Principle

The prevailing problem with those who prevail is that there can sometimes be a tendency to arrogance amongst the youth.  I’ve lost count of the number of apprentices whom I’ve had over the years who thought that they had learned all there was to learn.  (Note to self – buy more band-aids to elastoplast their soon-to-be-brusied egos.)  

The Bible is littered with stories of spiritual teens who became complacent and began to believe their own press.  Witness the case of Joshua who, high from his victory at Jericho, hotfooted to Ai and suffered a humiliating defeat there.  I suspect that assumed invincibility is part of the beauty as well as the infuriation of the teenage years!

Until we’re broken, few of us are able to differentiate between true and false victory.  We tend to vanity and want to taken credit for “our” triumphs.  Indeed, it can easily be seen that the spirit of this present age is very much the spirit of self-help, self-improvement and self-advancement.  The evidence is everywhere around us; even the “church” has bought itself into the self-improvement myth and in so doing, has become knavishly self-absorbed.  We greatly admire the self-made man and the Baby Boomers which is the generation I belong to and which has done more to advance the case for self-help than any other generation in history.  We are, after all, as one commentator put it, “the generation who thought that death was optional.”
 
We have promoted those men and women who believe in themselves as paragons of entrepreneurial virtue.  The greater and more gauche their belief in themselves, the more we anticipate their success.  Allow me to cite an anecdotal example, the aptly named “Sales Bible” – Rule 2 of the Rules of Success: “Believe in yourself ….  If you don’t think you can do it, who will?  You control the most important tool in selling: your mind!”1 Or how about Napoleon Hill’s iconic book, “Think And Grow Rich”, which contains the seminal statement, “Faith is the starting point of the accumulation of riches.”
 
In truth, we do have staggering capabilities and capacities, many of which are untapped, unrealised and unused.  These capacities have suffered both neglect and abuse in equal measure.
 
Allow me to show you the over-realised self through the lens of the Apostle Peter who is also known as Simon Peter.  Bear in mind, as we follow his story, that the Lord has a pin the size of a javelin ready and waiting with which to burst Peter’s self-congratulatory balloon.  Now, Peter is a useful character through whom we may view the phases of the Christian life and through whom we can wince with as he stumbles towards the Unified Life.
 
From the very first encounter with Peter, the Lord signals His intentions.  This, after all, is the man who would unlock the door of salvation to the Jewish people.
 
“[Andrew, Peter’s brother] brought [Peter] to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John?  You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”
[John 1:42]
 
As is well known, the name “Peter” means “rock” or “stone”.  Some have made much of the idea that “Petros” really means “pebble”.  I quite like that idea but the real point is that this man would be the “rock” upon whom the Lord would build His church.  Frankly, it’s almost laughable.  In choosing Peter to be the founding apostle of the church, the Lord, I believe, gives us the real key to service-in-Christ.
 
There’s an interesting management theory formulated by a certain Dr Laurence J Peter called simply, “The Peter Principle”.  This principle pertains to personal competence.  The Peter Principle states that members of hierarchical organisations are eventually promoted to their highest level of competence after which further promotion raises them to a level where they may become incompetent.  This is known as the member’s “level of incompetence”.  Having reached this “max-out” point, the employee has little or no chance at all of being promoted any further.  Thus, his or her career growth is said to have plateaued within the given organisation.
 
The employee’s incompetence is not necessarily exposed as a result of the higher-ranking position being more “difficult”.  It may simply be that the position is different from the position in which the employee has previously excelled and thus, requires different skills which the employee may not possess.  In organisational life, leadership accession programmes, such as the ones I facilitate for my clients in the corporate sector, are offered to up-skill employees although in truth, I’m often called in to help in-service leaders as opposed to aspiring ones.  Nonetheless, the idea is to refrain from promoting a person until that person already shows the skills or habits necessary to succeed at the next higher position.  Thus, a person is not promoted to lead or manage others if he or she doesn’t already display leadership or management abilities.
 
As I read the Scriptures, I see a paradox.  It seems to me that nobody is really greatly used of God until they reach their level of incompetence.  “Impotence” and not “importance” is the key criterion for promotion as the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 –
 
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.  Therefore, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
[1 Cor. 1:26-31]
 
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