CRACKING THE CODE: How Leaders Improve Over Time

How do leaders get better in their craft? How do they continue to develop themselves and their leadership skill sets? It all starts with intention. A leader who has the self-awareness and intelligence to know that they can improve is a progressive leader. They know that they themselves are the leading...

How do leaders get better in their craft? How do they continue to develop themselves and their leadership skill sets? It all starts with intention. A leader who has the self-awareness and intelligence to know that they can improve is a progressive leader. They know that they themselves are the leading indicator for the growth and performance of their organizations.

One of the best ways to understand how leadership expertise actually develops is through the competency ladder described as the “Four Stages of Learning Any New Skill” by Noel Burch in the early 1970s. It is the best way of understanding how we can purposefully improve our skills and effectiveness as leaders.

Let’s do a quick review of the four stages, I’ll share an amusing example and then we’ll review some specific examples that apply to leaders.

Stage 1: Unconsciously Incompetent = I don’t know that I don’t know
Stage 2: Consciously Incompetent = I know that I don’t know
Stage 3: Consciously Competent = I know, but it takes a lot of concentration
Stage 4: Unconsciously Competent = I automatically know, it is second nature

Do you remember what it was like the first time you rode a bike? Before you were even aware bikes existed, you were at stage one. You were unconsciously incompetent. You had no idea about bikes or your lack of ability to ride one. The moment you sat on the bike and attempted to ride it, you entered stage two. You became consciously incompetent. Stage two is tough for people, because you realize you’re not any good at something. Most people try to avoid this stage because it is uncomfortable not knowing how to execute something. This is where fear shows up and keeps many people from even attempting new things.

Back to the bike. With a little bit of time and practice, you finally hit stage three, where you were consciously competent. You knew how to ride, and you could ride without training wheels or help, but you really had to think about it. You were riding the bike with a fake smile and white-knuckling the handlebars. Then you hit stage four, which is unconsciously competent. You could ride without any conscious thought about how to ride a bike.

We are all at stage four with many things that happen every day. Breathing, walking, talking, eating, talking, driving, typing and perhaps even in how we treat people.

So how does this apply to leadership?

We want to share a few specific leadership examples for each level in the competency ladder. Each of these are examples that we see all of the time in leaders we all work with, you will recognize a few of these traits.

Stage 1 Examples: Unconsciously Incompetent Leadership

These are real-world examples and scenarios where leaders are completely out of touch with what they should and could be doing in certain situations.

  • Not considering the audience in communications
  • Missing great recognition opportunities
  • Not recognizing obviously toxic people
  • Unconscious biases of all types
  • “Losing the room” in situations where influence is needed
  • Poor grammar or vocabulary
  • Bringing old skills into new situations

Stage 2 Examples: Consciously Incompetent Leadership

These are typical situations where a leader knows they are not competent. They find themselves “out of their depth” and realize they have a skill or knowledge shortfall.

  • One-on-one conversations about serious personnel issues
  • Situations requiring specific technical knowledge
  • Situations where study or research was needed and not done
  • Misunderstanding the personalities/temperaments involved in a situation
  • Overestimating your own ability to persuade a person or group

Stage 3 Examples: Consciously Competent Leadership

This may be the biggest category for progressive leaders. They are situations where preparation and experience can drive successful leadership. Note: people in this category are the best trainers and coaches for these skills. They are succeeding at something new, but the skill or tactic is not yet automatic for them. That’s the perfect profile for a successful teacher.

  • Successfully building a consensus on an important decision
  • Coaching a person towards a specific action or decision
  • Organizing a plan or initiative for your organization
  • Consciously recognizing good work and/or important progress
  • Paying attention to individuals with clear upside

Stage 4 Examples: Unconsciously Competent Leadership

A lot of what leaders do in this stage has become instinctive because of study and successful repetition. These actions are automatic.

  • Saying the right thing at the right time
  • Being careful with fragile egos and sensitive temperaments
  • Increasing the energy in the room just by showing up
  • Active delegation and automatic involvement of the right people
  • A strong intuition about people’s talents and skills


Recommendation 1: Share and teach these categories to other people. The competency levels will become more clear and distinct every time you discuss them with someone else or draw out an example using them. They give you an improvement vocabulary that will work in many different applications.

Recommendation 2: As leaders working with people we will find ourselves in all four stages every single day. As you go through your day, think about which interactions seem comfortable and which feel uncomfortable. Think about your potential blind spots… is there a gap in your current leadership skill set that could fall into the “unconsciously incompetent” category? Consider those areas that you already know you need to improve. These “consciously incompetent” areas are often our best and fastest upside opportunities as leaders.

Remember, leadership is a craft. You will improve to the degree that you can recognize improvement opportunities and act on them.