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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

The 4 stages of self-leadership competence (and how to identify which one you're at)

Are you familiar with the four stages of competence?

The four stages of competence model describes the psychological levels necessary to progress through in order to learn a new skill. The four stages are: 1) unconscious incompetence, 2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence and 4) unconscious competence. This model can be applied to any skill. So, let’s look at what they are and use the example of self-leadership skills.

The first level is about being unconsciously incompetent. Unconsciously incompetent self-leaders do not have any self-leadership skills but are not aware of that. People at this level might complain that things aren’t going the way they wished in their lives, but they’re mostly clueless about situations of opportunities through which they could have done something about it. People who are at this level often react directly to something that comes in between them and their goal either without much thinking about it or by attributing the problem to something outside their control. Let’s consider this with an example of one of the most common problems people encounter when pursuing a goal: Feeling excited in the beginning, but losing interest after a little while. Unconsciously incompetent people may not reflect on this much at all, but rather accept their fading interest as a dead end, with their behaviour necessary to attain their goal slowly fading. Or, they may think that the goal has simply become irrelevant to them. People in the first level of the four stage model often quite literally accept the fact that something gets in the way or too hard as something they couldn’t possible influence – and stop pursuing their goals.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ‘Insight is the first step towards improvement’. That’s what the second stage of the four stages of competence is about. It’s when we become aware of our incompetence. Because only when we know what we don’t know are we empowered to change. We may not know how to yet, but at least we can find out. People at this stage still have the same problem as in the previous stage (lack of self-leadership skills), but at least they’re aware of it. How would someone on this level reflect on the problem of feeling excited in the beginning but losing interest after a while? They would attribute at least part of the issue to something within their control. They may think they simply don’t have enough discipline, willpower or motivation. Most of the time that is the case. Consciously incompetent people may not know how to solve their issue yet, but the awareness they have empowers them to seek a solution or improvement. Which brings us to the third level.

The third level is conscious competence. This is where real change happens, as people at this level have the understanding and the skills to identify what stands between them and their goals and what they can do to solve the problem. People at the third level of the four-stage model are aware of the many concepts and skills involved in efficient self-leadership. They may understand that their biggest deficit is not lack of motivation or willpower, but the fact that their goals aren’t aligned to their values. They may understand that their not pursuing their goals in a way that plays to their strengths. Or, they may understand that 90% of the time they prioritise something more important other than their goal, they do so because of a lack of sufficient planning; or, because they have fear of failure and aren’t committed. They realise that they attributed more importance to other things in an effort to procrastinate and eliminate the corresponding cognitive dissonance. People at this stage have to put conscious effort into progressing further towards their goal. However, like anything in life, if you do it for long enough, it will eventually become a habit – a good one in this instance. Which brings us to the fourth and last level.

The fourth level describes the skill level at which you apply your competence, however, you do so unknowingly or intuitively, because it has become a habit – you can do it while on autopilot. You can probably guess the analogy I’m about to give you here. Think of driving a car: As a learner, you had to put conscious effort into every element necessary for driving – how to operate the clutch or indicators, and paying attention to the traffic, like signs and other drivers. Even having a conversation while driving was a challenge in this early stage. A few weeks or months later, you often arrive at your destination without any recollection of the journey whatsoever – you were on autopilot, because the skill you had to apply in order to operate the car had become so habitual for you.

Can you imagine what your life would look like if you mastered the art of self-leadership to the point where you thrive effortlessly and live your life to the fullest, without even having to put all the hard work in? I can’t deny that I love the sound of it myself. And, as an expert in the field and author of this blog, I should probably promise you that this is the gold treasure waiting for you at the end of it all. That once you’ve turned the last page, you’ll be completely and competently leading yourself successfully through every aspect of your life, without putting in the slightest bit of conscious effort. But I’ll be honest and say that I’m not sure that is achievable.

Some of the skills will be easier for you to nail than others and they may become an unconscious competence for you rather quickly.

However, mastering the whole suite of self-leadership skills probably takes a lifelong effort of trying, winning, failing and getting back up, adjusting and so forth. After all, we live in a world where not everything we experience is under our control. But I do believe that we can choose how we respond to our experiences. And what I do promise you is that the journey of trying, of growing and learning, falling and getting back up, will be worth it. That the mastery of self-leadership is a life attitude and philosophy worth living by, rather than a goal one should expect to achieve. That every single step you take towards practising self-leadership and every bit of exploration you’ll do along the way, every adjustment you make in your life and the improvements you will experience, no matter how big or small, will leave you feeling more alive, fulfilled and happy than you were before. Because you will start living your life more and more true to your full potential. Wow, that got deep fast. I better have some coffee.

So, which stage of self-leadership competence are you at and what do you have to do to get to the next one up?

Maike x


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