One way to understand this is to use the metaphor of learning a new sport. For a moment, lets say you have never ridden a horse. As you move through the process of mastering the skills and techniques that will allow you and your mount to float effortlessly over even the highest jumps (or fences), you move through the four stages of competence:
- Unconscious incompetence - At this stage you don't know what you don't know. You have no idea that there are muscles you have never used, or that there are signals you send to the horse through your seat, legs and hands. You have no concept of the depth of the knowledge you will need to master the sport.
- Conscious incompetence - At this stage you become conscious of the vast amount of learning necessary to master the sport, and that you do not yet have the skills that will make you a successful rider. But, the good news is that the world of possibility has opened before you, and you are ready to take on the challenge.
- Conscious competence - Now you have learned the skills, but each time you apply them it takes significant conscious effort to remember the correct position, command, sequence, and subtle nuisances of the relationship between your and your horse. After completing a ride, you are exhausted from the effort of having to think through every muscle movement, and correcting every error.
- Unconscious competence - And finally, you have reached the stage where you have mastered the sport. You and your horse communicate without even having to think about commands or analyzing feedback. You flow together around the course as if you are one. No conscious effort is required to apply the skills that only a few months or years ago seemed so foreign and difficult.
However, comfort comes with practice. Every time you apply the concepts of leadership you take a step toward unconscious competence. And, at some point in your future you will find that you are able to apply a leadership perspective to the challenges of life.