Incompetence, Competence and Leadership

"Conscious Competence" is one of those foundational concepts I learned in a leadership development course that has stuck with me over time. Sometimes we're so eager to buy - or sell - a silver bullet that we overlook the tools that are already out there.  

The model at the right is based on work created decades ago by Noel Burch. Originally described as the "Four Stages of Learning," his theory is one of the foundational leadership concepts that STILL helps people understand what is going on in the organization, why others are behaving in certain ways, and their own behavior. All of this can help us be more effective leaders - both informally and formally.

The concept is pretty simple. The vertical axis matrix is "consciousness" and the horizontal axis is "competence." A learner starts in the lower left quadrant, moves upwards, then to the right, then down again. Understanding these stages, the "states of competence," can help you understand and relate better to others as a leader, team mate, and change agent. Some people use the term "skill" instead of "competence." I've come across more people who recognize it as the "conscious competence" model, so I usually stick with that language.

Q1: UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT (unconsciously unskilled)

Have you ever been stumped as to why someone is doing something a certain way and wondered, "What the heck are they thinking?! Why would anyone do it that way?!"  It could be, that's all they know - and they don't realize what they COULD know.  In Q1:

  • We don't know what we don't know.

  • We're probably not trying very hard to learn a new way to do it.

  • We may think everything is just fine.

  • We may over-estimate our ability to do something because we aren't aware that we don't have the skills we need.

The Impact:

  • If we underestimate the situation, we could fail miserably.

  • We could also be really annoying & frustrating to others who actually realize what is going on.

  • Hopefully, those who really understand what is going on will have grace, patience, and the emotional intelligence to treat us with respect.

Leadership Skills to Use or Develop:

  • To avoid spending too much time in Q1, where you have blind spots, ask others for feedback using open-ended questions, such as:

    • "What am I missing?"

    • "What else should I be thinking about?"

    • "What else do you see?"

  • When you are leading or working with others in Q1, practice coaching skills and self-management.

    • Coach people by asking similar open-ended questions, like "What's another way to look at that?"

    • Practice self-management: Don't lose your patience or your cool. Recognizing that this is part of the learning process helps with patience.

    • Sometimes you'll need to be directive: "This time around, we need to do it this way and here's why. I'd like you to be involved, so let me know what questions you have." Key to this approach is being directive when it's what the learner needs, a leadership approach we learn from Ken Blanchard's Situational Leadership work. Balance being direct with being respectful - and make sure you answer questions and debrief along the way.

Q2: CONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT (consciously unskilled)

Who hasn't had one of those awakenings when we suddenly realize our parents were right? We really DIDN'T know how to drive in the snow that time when we were 16 & took the car out for the spin. At some point, we REALIZED we needed to develop more skills. We recognized our own incompetence. This is a pretty healthy place to be, as it means we are self-aware.  

As a leader, think about someone who is in the first quadrant versus the second quadrant. In the first quadrant, the person we're training, or attempting to influence or teach, doesn't even realize they don't know what we're trying to teach. This isn't a character flaw or something to berate them for. Have patience because it is part of the learning process. Your focus in Q1 is creating a sense of urgency or need, which helps them move to the awareness of what they don't know. In Q2, there's an opportunity for you to transmit knowledge and skills since the learner recognizes the gap, the opportunity, and the need.

Since we're talking about people, there are always exceptions. Sometimes, people choose to stay in Q2. "I don't know and I'm fine with that" is something you might hear. That's the conscious choice NOT to learn. Depending on the situation, that could be ok as well. As a leader, informal or formal, if you really need someone to continue learning, you'll need to lean on your persuading, influencing, and motivating skills. (That's another topic for another day. If you don't see a relevant post on my Insights & Resources page, feel free to contact me for more information about how to navigate this situation.)

The Impact:

  • Enthusiasm could ramp up: "I've gotta' learn this so I can kick #@%%."

  • Confidence could falter: "I thought I had my act together."

  • How quickly people move from Q2 depends on their motivation, personality, ability to learn, perceptions about whether they need to learn it, how long it will take, etc.

Leadership Skills to Use or Develop:

  • If you're the one in Q2, figure out IF learning the skill is realistic and worthwhile.

    • Will it make you a better performer? Will it improve your business or organization? Does it fit in your job responsibilities and vision for your career?

    • Do the benefits of learning the skill outweigh the cost of time, energy, money, or other resources?

    • Then, figure out HOW to learn what you need to learn.

  • If you are working with someone in Q2, this is a great opportunity to support someone by teaching them what you know, helping them find resources to learn, and answering questions. Leadership competencies you'll be leveraging include things like developing others and communication.

Q3: CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT (consciously skilled)

In Q3, we are purposefully performing the skill or using the knowledge have have. We KNOW what we KNOW and we're fine-tuning our learning and skills, which also can take effort. Frequently the effort is obvious to others. Think of a time when you were in a class with an instructor who was new. You probably noticed their effort - the double-checking, the pauses while they thought through exactly what to say or how to answer a question. Sometimes, this extra effort comes across unnatural and forced.  

The Impact:

  • We have more confidence because we're aware of what we know.

  • We know we have the skill, but we still need to concentrate on it.

  • We could be cautious, though, being more deliberate and not as natural as someone with advanced skills.

  • We often need to think about the skill while we're doing it.

  • We might need to use notes, cheat sheets, references, and job aids to build confidence.

  • We could also be experimenting with the skill - innovating & trying something new.

Leadership Skills to Use or Develop:

  • When you're leading someone in this quadrant, give them space. You don't need to micro-manage them or give them much instruction. Check in with them occasionally. Encourage Q3 folks to share skills with others.

  • When you're in this quadrant yourself, keep working at the skill! Hone your talents! As the skill gets stronger, recognize that you will begin to lose awareness that not everyone has the skill. That's when you are moving into Q4.

Q4: UNCONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT (unconsciously skilled)

The Impact:

  • As a learner, the skill is natural in Q4. We don't even think about it.

  • We may not even be aware of the skill, so we might leave others behind.

  • Working with someone who is in Q4 can be energizing and motivating, because we can count on their contributions. On the flip side, it can also be intimidating and hard to keep up if it is a skill we don't have ourselves.

Leadership Skills to Use or Develop:

  • If you are in Q4, practice self-awareness. If you are super-skilled at something, are you patient with others? Do you share and teach others? Do you demand others perform at the same level, regardless of their training and experience? Do you assume everyone knows what you are talking about and how to do it?

  • When leading someone in Q4, it's similar to Q3. No micromanaging. Check in or ask for updates. Pay attention to other team members in case they aren't keeping up.

  • Someone in Q4 can be a great resource for other team members. They teach by modeling because the skill is natural for them. They can also be great trainers - as long as they don't assume everyone is starting from the same place.

Your call to action


  • What resonated with you as you read the article?

  • What do you recognize in yourself and others?


  • How can you use these ideas to improve your performance, motivate, and develop others, and/or improve your organization?


  • What is one thing you will stop, start, or continue doing tomorrow to improve your performance and your leadership skills?