Are great leaders born or made? Peter is a strong argument for both. Without the Lord's discipleship and tutelage, he never would have been more than a fisherman. But true leaders also require certain innate gifts—think of it as the raw material of leadership.
Peter had the God-given fabric of leadership woven into his personality from the beginning. Of course, it was the Lord who fashioned him this way in his mother’s womb (cf. Psalm 139:13–16).
There are certain rather obvious features in Simon Peter’s natural disposition that were critical to his leadership ability. These are not generally characteristics that can be developed merely by training; they were innate features of Peter’s temperament.
The first one is inquisitiveness. When you’re looking for a leader, you want someone who asks lots of questions. People who are not inquisitive simply don’t make good leaders. Curiosity is crucial to leadership. People who are content with what they don’t know, happy to remain ignorant about what they don’t understand, complacent about what they haven’t analyzed, and comfortable living with problems they haven’t solved—such people cannot lead. Leaders need to have an insatiable curiosity. They need to be people who are hungry to find answers. Knowledge is power. Whoever has the information has the lead. If you want to find a leader, look for someone who is asking the right questions and genuinely looking for answers.
This sort of inquisitiveness normally manifests itself in early childhood. Most of us have encountered children who ask question after question—wearying their parents and other adults with a nonstop barrage of petty puzzlers. (Some of us can even remember being like that as children!) That is part of the fabric of leadership. The best problem-solvers are people who are driven by an unquenchable enthusiasm for knowing and understanding things.
In the gospel accounts, Peter asks more questions than all the other apostles combined. It was usually Peter who asked the Lord to explain His difficult sayings (Matthew 15:15; Luke 12:41). It was Peter who asked how often he needed to forgive (Matthew 18:21). It was Peter who asked what reward the disciples would get for having left everything to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27). It was Peter who asked about the withered fig tree (Mark 11:21). It was Peter who asked questions of the risen Christ (John 21:20–22). He always wanted to know more, to understand better. And that sort of inquisitiveness is a foundational element of a true leader.
Another necessary piece of raw material for leadership is initiative. If a man is wired for leadership, he will have drive, ambition, and energy. A true leader must be the kind of person who makes things happen. He is a starter. Notice that Peter not only asked questions; he was also usually the first one to answer any question posed by Christ. He often charged right in where angels fear to tread.
There was that famous occasion when Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). Several opinions were circulating among the people about that. “And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets’” (Matthew 16:14). Jesus then asked the disciples in particular, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, emphasis added). It was at that point that Peter boldly spoke out above the rest: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). The other disciples were still processing the question, like schoolboys afraid to speak up lest they give the wrong answer. Peter was bold and decisive. That’s a vital characteristic of all great leaders. Sometimes he had to take a step back, undo, retract, or be rebuked. But the fact that he was always willing to grab opportunity by the throat marked him as a natural leader.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Roman soldiers from Fort Antonia came to arrest Jesus, all three synoptic gospel writers say there was a “large crowd” armed “with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47; cf. Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47). A typical Roman cohort consisted of six hundred soldiers, so in all likelihood there were hundreds of battle-ready Roman troops in and around the garden that night. Without hesitating, Peter pulled out his sword and took a swing at the head of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. (The high priest and his personal staff would have been in the front of the mob, because he was the dignitary ordering the arrest.) Peter was undoubtedly trying to cut the man’s head off. But Peter was a fisherman, not a swordsman. Malchus ducked, and his ear was severed. So Jesus “touched his ear and healed him” (Luke 22:51). Then He told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Think about that incident. There was an entire detachment of Roman soldiers there—perhaps numbering in the hundreds. What did Peter think he was going to do? Behead them all, one by one? Sometimes in Peter’s passion for taking the initiative, he overlooked the obvious big-picture realities.
But with all his brashness, Peter had the raw material from which a leader could be made. Better to work with a man like that than to try to motivate someone who is always passive and hesitant. As the saying goes, it is much easier to tone down a fanatic than to resurrect a corpse. Some people have to be dragged tediously in any forward direction. Not Peter. He always wanted to move ahead. He wanted to know what he didn’t know. He wanted to understand what he didn’t understand. He was the first to ask questions and the first to try to answer questions. He was a man who always took the initiative, seized the moment, and charged ahead. That’s the stuff of leadership.
Remember, these characteristics are only the raw material from which a leader is made. Peter needed to be trained and shaped and matured. But to do the task Christ had for him, he needed moxie, chutzpa—courage to stand up in Jerusalem on Pentecost and preach the gospel in the face of the same population who had lately executed their own Messiah. But Peter was just the sort of fellow who could be trained to take that kind of courageous initiative.
There’s a third element of the raw material that makes a true leader: involvement. True leaders are always in the middle of the action. They do not sit in the background telling everyone else what to do while they live a life of comfort away from the fray. A true leader goes through life with a cloud of dust around him. That is precisely why people follow him. People cannot follow someone who remains distant. The true leader must show the way. He goes before his followers into the battle.
Jesus came to the disciples one night out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, walking on the water in the midst of a violent storm. Who out of all the disciples jumped out of the boat? Peter. There’s the Lord, he must have thought. I’m here; I’ve got to go where the action is. The other disciples wondered if they were seeing a ghost (Matthew 14:26). But Peter said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Jesus answered, “Come” (Matthew 14:27–28)—and before anyone knew it, Peter was out of the boat, walking on the water. The rest of the disciples were still clinging to their seats, trying to make sure they didn’t fall overboard in the storm. But Peter was out of the boat without giving it a second thought. That is involvement—serious involvement. Only after he left the boat and walked some distance did Peter think about the danger and start to sink.
People often look at that incident and criticize Peter’s lack of faith. But let’s give him credit for having faith to leave that boat in the first place. Before we disparage Peter for the weakness that almost brought him down, we ought to remember where he was when he began to sink.
Similarly, although Peter denied Christ, keep in mind one significant fact: He and one other disciple (probably his lifelong friend, John) were the only ones who followed Jesus to the high priest’s house to see what would become of Jesus (John 18:15). And in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, Peter was the only one close enough for Jesus to turn and look him in the eyes when the rooster crowed (Luke 22:61). Long after the other disciples had forsaken Christ and fled in fear for their lives, Peter was virtually alone in a position where such a temptation could snare him, because despite his fear and weakness, he couldn’t abandon Christ completely. That’s the sign of a true leader. When almost everyone else bailed out, he tried to stay as close to his Lord as he could get. He wasn’t the kind of leader who is content to send messages to the troops from afar. He had a passion to be personally involved, so he is always found close to the heart of the action.
That was the raw fabric of which Peter was made: an insatiable inquisitiveness, a willingness to take the initiative, and a passion to be personally involved. Now it was up to the Lord to train and shape him, because frankly, that kind of raw material, if not submitted to the Lord’s control, can be downright dangerous.