Noel Burch developed a model way back in the ‘70’s called the “Four Stages of Learning”. Burch’s model suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know and therefore unconscious of their own incompetence. This is the first stage of the model defined as Unconscious Incompetence. In example, my daughter sat in Unconscious Competence (you don’t know that you don’t know) for the first 16 years of her life, as she was a passenger in the family car. When she acquired her learners permit she slide behind the wheel of our standard transmission Jeep and quickly realized how little she actually knew thus placing her in stage 2 of the model called Conscious Incompetence (you know that you don’t know). She now knew what she did not know and struggled through learning the intricacies of driving, as well as suffering through my attempts to teach her to drive (not a recommended practice to have a parent teach a child to drive). Each step took significant focus and determination to move through complete ignorance to a place where the techniques started to become more comfortable. As she entered the stage of knowing how to drive stage 3 of Conscious Competence (you know that you know) arrived. Fortunately, stage 3 came in time for her driver’s exam and she passed and was granted the freedom-producing gift of a driver’s license. Many years have passed since Megan was granted her license and she, like most drivers on the road, entered stage 4 of the model – Unconscious Competence (you don’t know that you know – it just happens easily). This means the act of driving became a rote process or second nature.
I am sure that most of us can relate to this story and likely can recall examples of times we arrived at a destination and wondered how we got there or if we actually stopped at that stop sign we had stopped at so many times before while driving this route. When we are in stage 4 of the model we do most things almost unconsciously. I will also add that with sustained time in the Unconscious Competence arena most humans enter a place commonly called boredom. Therefore we look for the excitement of new things to do or learn. Consciously we hope to be back in Conscious Competence or even back to Conscious Incompetence in order to thwart off the boredom that has set in.
How is all of this connected to leadership? I have spent 30 years in the leadership development business. I continue to marvel at the number of people that enter the profession of leadership in a very Unconscious Incompetence state. We see the typically Unconsciously Competent technician make the move to management and struggle to apply the different tools necessary to be successful in their new role as a leader. They soon realize (Conscious Incompetence) that leading is very different than doing. And it takes bold action to develop the necessary skills to become a successful (Conscious Competence) leader. Few seem to reach the pinnacle of leadership (Unconscious Competence) where it seems to be an effortless exercise. These are the leaders that people tell the stories about when we ask them to share the stories of the leaders that have had a significant impact on their lives.
Staying in the Unconscious Competence state as a leader takes continuous analysis and development. The leaders that constantly look at their growth are the ones that never enter a state of boredom and look to find something new to generate enthusiasm in their lives. They are the leaders that see leadership as who they are and a lifelong pursuit constantly learning and honing their skills. These are the leaders I find joy in working with.
Which stage of the Four Stages of Learning are you sitting in as a leader?