A Learning Model

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership

Aware Then Unaware:

Years ago, when I was studying martial arts, I became aware of a learning model. I’m pretty sure many, perhaps most, of you are also aware of that model. It goes like this:

In the beginning, you aren’t aware of how difficult a task might be. In the Dojo, the Sensei makes things look easy. But then, it’s your turn to try to perform. You are an Unconscious Incompetent at that point. But as you struggle to perform up to even one-tenth of the Sensei’s performance, it dawns on you that you are totally incompetent. You are now a Conscious Incompetent.


After years of consistent, hard practice, you become a conscious competent. That is, you now are aware of what needs to be done to protect yourself. You know the moves. You can adapt to changing situations. And you are feeling confident about your technical skills.

But there is one more stage of competency. The more you practice your art, the more it becomes “second nature.” That is to say, that often you find yourself responding without first having to think about what you have to do. It’s automatic. When you reach this point, you are an Unconscious Competent. Besides using martial arts as an example, think about learning to walk. If now, you try to think about all the mechanics of bipedal motivation, you will likely trip and fall. As adults, we are Unconscious Competents when it comes to walking.


I believe that learning to be an excellent leader follows the same learning model. That is to say, we start out thinking we know what it means to be a leader. We’ve seen so many others who do it — it’s easy, and I know I can do it better! (Unconscious Incompetent).

Then we get our first leadership position. We find out it isn’t nearly as easy to deal with other human beings, project schedules and continuous improvement initiatives as we thought it would be. We transition to the Conscious Incompetent state. If we admit that we need to gain skills to be a good leader, then we will slowly move into the Conscious Competent role.

My thoughts are that some parts of our leadership practice will become “second nature” to us. So we will, in some leadership skill areas, become Unconscious Competents. Perhaps we will be great at hiring. Or perhaps we will be visionary and seem to intuit where the market is going.

Lifelong Learning

Because we will always have new skills to learn, or because we will have to update existing skills, we will not be totally Unconscious Competents in all aspects of our leadership practice. We will be Conscious Competents and/or Conscious Incompetents in some parts. Personally, that suits me just fine. I so enjoy learning new things and then finding ways to make them practical that I fully embrace this concept of leadership.

How about you? Are you always curious about why things are the way they are? Do you wonder what makes people “tick?” Are you a lifelong learner? If so, you may be on your way to being an Unconscious Competent Leader.