What characterizes the best leader, employer, or mentor you’ve had the opportunity to know? Likely the great leaders you’ve been most influenced by have been characterized by the catching force of humble yet confident leadership. Great leaders are grounded in knowledge of themselves and the world around them; they then place that humility at the service of a daring mission. One of several business insights in the Bible lies in Christ’s choice of St. Peter as the first Pope. Through the strengths and shortcomings of St. Peter’s leadership, Scripture provides us a powerful example of the importance of humility at the service of boldness.
St. Peter’s Leadership in the Early Church
Scripture clearly reveals to us that St. Peter’s leadership is established in how Christ chose to “build” on him as the rock of the Faithful: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Christ knew the gifts and characters of His apostles more than anyone else and intentionally empowered St. Peter to become a servant leader, the head of the early Church community. Christ knew that the Church, especially after His Ascension, would need a special representative of Him to provide guidance and be decisive in leading and strengthening the Faithful as an organization.
St. Peter’s Leadership: Weakness
Christ intentionally chose St. Peter above all other men not because he was perfect; Scripture attests to St. Peter’s flawed humanity. While he was situated in a special place of leadership among the disciples, this does not mean that St. Peter found Christ’s words easy to understand or always knew how to respond to them.
When Christ foretold His suffering, death, and resurrection, for instance, St. Peter’s response was one of unbelief, leading Christ to say, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16: 21-23). Later, while he had been ready to use force to defend Christ from being arrested, St. Peter failed when put to the test in the courtyard of the High Priest, repeatedly denying that he knew Christ (Matthew 26: 58-75).
After Christ’s ascension, as full-time missionary and leader of the Church, St. Peter continued to make errors. St. Paul reproached him, for instance, for how he avoided eating with uncircumcised converts, for his behavior might have seemed to indicate that pagan converts needed to become Jews. St. Peter was a strong leader, yes, but one who made some very public mistakes and displays of weakness.
St. Peter’s Leadership: Faithfulness to a Call
While St. Peter had weaknesses, these did not drive him to forfeit his leadership position. St. Peter’s ability to remain faithful to his call to leadership, despite his failings, is grounded in a profoundly personal reason: His relationship with Christ. It is the encounter he had with a Person and his commitment of discipleship to that Person that transformed St. Peter into an effective leader who did not give up when he made mistakes.
St. John Paul II speaks of how St. Peter especially encountered Christ as the Good Shepherd, saying:
He experienced His [Christ’s] tender and merciful love and was won over by it. His apostolic vocation and mission, summed up in the new name of St. Peter that he received from the Master, is based entirely on his relationship with Him from the first meeting, to which his brother Andrew had called him (cf. John 1: 40-42), until the last one on the lake shore, when the Risen One charged him to tend His flock (cf. John 21: 15-19). In between is the long journey of discipleship, in which the divine Master leads Simon to a profound conversion, which experienced the tragic hours of the Passion but then led to the bright joy of Easter.
St. Peter’s personal relationship with Christ made him aware of his calling, empowering him to persist in his mission even when he felt unworthy.
St. Peter’s Leadership: Closer to Christ
In fact, St. Peter’s leadership method was to allow his weaknesses, his occasions for humility, to bind him closer to Christ. Christ Himself seemed to teach St. Peter this by asking him three times if he loved Him, as if to heal St. Peter from the three times he denied Christ. Pope Benedict XVI describes how in this encounter Christ taught St. Peter that, despite his weakness, he can hope for divine conformity, and his poor human love is made enough by Christ.
St. Peter also used his weakness for good by allowing it to bind him closer to his followers. Suffering and uncertain like the other apostles after Christ’s violent death, St. Peter was with John on the morning of the resurrection. Struggling to find a balance between welcoming Gentile converts and not alienating Jewish Christians, St. Peter’s writings and ministry were complemented and informed by the influence of St. Paul. By “leaning into” his weaknesses and allowing them to bind him closer to the Church community and to Christ, St. Peter let his imperfections become opportunities for grace.
St. Peter as Model for Modern Evangelization and Entrepreneurship
St. Peter’s model of fidelity to the leadership call, despite realization of his own weakness, is an amazing reminder of how we need to live as missionary evangelizers, or as business entrepreneurs. Leaders can be great without being perfect! We should not be torn down or overly distraught by weakness, but use it as an opportunity to be reminded of our Why: that it is Christ Who called us to become leaders in the first place!
As we strive to be better leaders, St. Peter’s leadership shows us that our weaknesses and infidelities, if we let them, can bind us closer to Christ and to the communities we serve. Pope Benedict XVI writes:
The school of faith is not a triumphal march but a journey marked daily by suffering and love, trials and faithfulness. St. Peter, who promised absolute fidelity, knew the bitterness and humiliation of denial: the arrogant man learns the costly lesson of humility. St. Peter, too, must learn that he is weak and in need of forgiveness.
Knowing our need for mercy, and letting our weakness remind us to reach out for it, is a way that weakness makes us more ready for our individual leadership missions. As St. Peter heard the corrections of St. Paul, we need to be ever ready to truly listen to those who offer corrections to our course of action, even if we are the primary or decisive leader in our family, workplace, or area of mission.
Hold Fast to the Rock
Finally, let’s contemplate how St. Peter’s leadership reminds us that all those who work for the Kingdom of Heaven are called to keep one hand always fixed firmly on the rock of the Magisterium, whether the Pope’s name be Peter, Pius, Clement, or Francis.
For further reading, check out Benedict XVI’s General Audience on St. Peter the Fisherman, from May 2006.
Also, be sure to check out Business Skills in the Bible, Part 1.