During the summer before I started work in my first job, I discovered that not everyone in a position of authority is as competent as their position requires.

As young fit teenagers looking for a bit of ready cash, my friend Rik and I found out that the local council were looking for some casual labour to clean out a boating pool on the seafront near where we lived. Although the pool had a concrete surround, it had been dug out of an area of grassland and the bottom of it was simply an earthy clay. Over the years, reeds had grown in the pool and they had begun to foul the small propellers on the boats. Quite sensibly, the local council decided to drain the pool and dig up the reeds. Rik, I, and a handful of others were duly taken on for a week’s work and we set to in glorious sunshine with a sea breeze to cool us down. By the end of the week, we had uprooted all the reeds and piled them in heaps around the bottom of the pool to await removal by a council lorry. One more good day’s work would probably have had the job completed.

Then a man from the council came to assess what we had done. He took one look at the situation, and decided that there would be no need to waste money on having us shift the piles onto the side of the pool and then onto a lorry. Instead, he said that if we refilled the pool, all the reeds would float and we could then rake them off to the side. So the pool was refilled, all the reeds sank to the bottom and we all got another week’s work to dig them all out again. The interesting thing, was that all of us ignorant teenagers, and also the job foreman thought the decision to be wrong, but none of us said anything because the man from the council was the one in authority and we assumed that he knew what he was doing.

A university professor by the name of Peters studied the correlation between authority and competence and came up with a formula called the Peter Principle. It was that as a general rule, people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. The idea is simple. For instance, a mechanic in a garage is both competent and reliable, the boss needs a new foreman and promotes him to the position. If the good mechanic turns out to be an incompetent foreman, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However, if he proves to be a good foreman, he might then get promoted to works manager. If the good foreman turns out to be an incompetent works manager, instead of going back to his old job (which he was good at) he stays in the new one (which he is no good at). However if he is a good works manager, he might be promoted to area manager etc. And so it goes on till he finally gets promoted to a job which he cannot do and then he stays there. In this way, positions of authority can have a tendency to be filled by people who were good at something else but who are not very good at the job they end up doing.

There are of course many notable exceptions and the principle is far from infallible. However, it is surprising how many times it does actually happen. Raymond Hull developed Professor Peter’s theory in a little book just called ‘The Peter Principle’ and it is well worth reading if you can find an old copy of it.

In local and national government, incompetence may be widely recognised by those outside the bureaucratic system, but rarely acknowledged by those within it. However, we all would do well to look at ourselves and ask whether we genuinely have the ability to match the responsibilities which we carry – whatever level they are at.

Incompetence will be minimised where an environment of honesty and humility prevails. For Christians, the Holy Spirit will always be nudging us to recognise incompetence in ourselves and then subsequently in others. Where robust but gracious challenge is welcomed, the Holy Spirit will press that home and help eliminate the Peter Principle in us and our churches.

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