By Verdeen Bueckert

You’ve planned, prioritized and developed a team. Now it gets interesting: expect mistakes and missteps when you involve others.

The Peter Principle states, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” This phrase was coined in a 1969 book title, and has since merged into our western paradigm of leadership development. It’s a discouraging idea. But is incompetence inevitable, or does it simply reflect the limitations of the “sink or swim method” of leadership development?


Source: The Daily Telegraph. Photographer: Greg Porteous. Found at Sport,

Here’s a more hopeful philosophy: The Saint Peter Principle. It’s based on the expectation leaders will succeed and fail brilliantly for many reasons. Failure is part of the development journey, because:

  • Leaders take initiative – and it won’t always be appropriate. When a Samaritan village didn’t welcome Jesus, James and John suggested, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”  John later wrote a Gospel and letters on the theme of love.
  • Leaders take risks and sometimes fail: Peter walked on water. Peter sank. But Peter did walk on water while the rest stayed in the boat.
  • Leaders face opposition and don’t always know what to do with it: Peter denied Christ three times. Later, Peter would counsel the church on how to live under persecution.
  • Leaders underestimate the temptation of power: James and John asked to sit at the right and left of Jesus when he set up his kingdom. John became a much loved pastor.
  • Leaders – all leaders – have limited knowledge and experience: When Peter asked Jesus to explain something he’d already simplified, Jesus replied, “You, too? Are you being willfully stupid?” (Don’t try this coaching phrase at home!) Peter preached at Pentecost and became the leader of the early church.


Even the best leaders have less than brilliant moments. This is why we need the Saint Peter Principle: Mentoring is required in order to reach new levels of competence. 

Effective leaders respond to challenges by seeking knowledge and insight. As they apply knowledge over time, they develop extensive, subconscious mental maps. It’s an unwritten code novice leaders are unaware of until:

  1. They succeed, and are affirmed for what they did right.
  2. They fail, discover what part of “the code” was broken, and understand how to succeed next time.

Coaching others through failure is tricky. Even the best constructive criticism drains emotional bank accounts. These crucial conversations feel awkward and dangerous. Yet, failure handled with wisdom is like gold:

  • It’s an opportunity to put things in perspective, by affirming all that’s going well.
  • It exposes “the code” – guiding principles, knowledge and social norms applicable to the teachable moment.
  • It develops caution and humility – which balance impulsiveness and over-confidence.
  • It’s an opportunity to emphasize the value of consultation and interdependence.


Diamonds in the rough look much like ordinary rocks. But after a lot of chipping and grinding, wow, they really shine!

It can be difficult, however, to mentor others if your own training has been “sink or swim”.  That’s where CREST Leadership comes in: we help leaders flourish at midlife. We connect leaders with seasoned coaches, and interpret “the code” from top leadership thinkers – so you can bring the Saint Peter principle to your people and organization. Click here for more information.

This blog is the fourth in a series called “How to Lead When You are Already Busy”. Here are the rest:

Blog #1

Blog #2

Blog #3