Four Stages of Competence

I have been reading a lot about models of learning, expertise and how individuals learn. I really enjoy this simple model of skill development. Developed by Noel Burch an employee of the consulting firm, Gordon Training International the model suggests that there are four stages of learning.

In the first stage, unconsciously unskilled, an individual is unaware of what they need to learn in a particular domain. In other words, “they do not know, what they do not know.” In this stage an individual may behave or act in a way that undermines their objective or impedes success simply because they lack the needed knowledge, skills or abilities to succeed.

In the second stage, consciously unskilled, an individual becomes aware of their inability to succeed in a particular task or skill.  In other words, they observe themselves lacking the knowledge, skills or abilities to succeed. This may be accompanied by a heightened understanding of just how far one has to go to reach success in a particular domain.

The consciously skilled phase is marked by practice, trial/error and experimentation. The individual knows “how to do the skill the right way, but need(s) to think and work hard to do it” (Adams, 2012, para. 10).

The final stage is unconsciously skilled and after continual practice and success the leaner no longer needs to expend the same level of energy on the task as in previous stages. The skill or ability is more or less automatic and even “natural” according to Adams (2012).

So how does all of this apply to leadership development? I think there are a number of connections that can and should be made. For instance, it helps program architects get into the mindset that in “leadership development” we are trying to develop skill vs. simply promote conceptual understanding which tends to dominate leader development programs. Rarely does someone leave a program knowing that they have truly developed in their skill to lead others. Could you sit in a classroom and talk about soccer for three days and expect great players at the conclusion? They may know more, but are they better at playing?

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