Great Leadership Learning: – the Conscious Unconscious Model.

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All great leaders understand the complexity behind great learning. It is not surface level, shallow learning that is forgotten quickly. It is

  • deep
  • persistent
  • at times incremental,
  • or a giant leap forward
  • but at all times transformative
  • and uniquely human

It is learning that requires effort and attention, changes mindsets and behaviours and leads to positive growth and great rewards for all.

Do you agree?

Any learning journey you embark on, particularly one that is driving deep behaviour change and building leadership qualities, can include a steep learning curve. What comes to mind when you hear that phrase ‘steep learning curve’?  It generally means something that is difficult and takes much time and effort to learn effectively.

With this in mind, it can help us to understand what happens when we are learning something new, especially when we hit the expected pitfalls of the learning curve so we can ensure the pitfalls don’t hold us back. Let’s take a look at the Conscious Unconscious Model of Learning

This model explains how learning occurs for most of us. The origin of the model is not clear, but the US based Gordon Training International has promoted its use. However, it may even date back to Confucius and Socrates!

The model illustrates four stages of learning:

It is often thought of as the ‘Learning Ladder’ as we start at the bottom  and work our way through to the top 

The progression runs from stage one to four in turn. It is not possible to jump stages. Progression from stage to stage is often accompanied by a feeling of ‘the penny dropping’ – the ‘ah-ha’ moment when we feel that we’ve taken a real step forward in our learning.

As individual adults we are all different in our learning styles and therefore how quickly we progress from one stage to another can change from one person to the next. The quality of the teaching, coaching or environment provided can also influence how effectively we move through the stages. Typically, because we each have our own bundle of preferences, strengths and weaknesses we find progression through the stages easier in some skill areas than in others.

Step 1 Unconscious Incompetence

Often, at this stage, we are comfortable where we are and with the skills we currently possess. We have no idea we are lacking in skills. In order for new learning to begin in a meaningful way, we have to first become conscious of our incompetence.  

Very often we are not aware of the existence or relevance of the skills we need to learn, or we don’t realize that we have a particular deficiency in the area concerned. It may be that we don’t think the new skill is relevant or useful. Or we may think we are already competent without realizing we have gaps in our knowledge and skills.

A good example of the conscious competence model in action is what happens when we learn to drive a car.


Before our first driving lesson, we may well feel that we could easily drive – we’ve seen our parents doing it, and it looks easy enough. We don’t know that we can’t do it and that in order to become competent we’ll need to develop some new knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Step 2: Conscious Incompetence 

We become aware of the existence and relevance of the skill and of our deficiencies, often by attempting the skill and the resultant feedback we receive. Or we realize that if we improve our skill or ability in this area our overall effectiveness will improve. Usually we will commit to learning and practicing the new skill, and to moving forward with our learning.

It is at this stage that our confidence can drop. Often and at first, we don’t necessarily succeed. This can lead to a sense of failure as we find it difficult to integrate all of the different elements of the new behaviours all at once.  When experiencing this ‘failure’ we might end up looking to find reasons why. We might, for example, blame the program or the coach, poor resources or any number of other things for our perceived failure. It’s important to recognize that with anything that’s worthwhile learning, a lack of initial success is inevitable – it is not failure – this is the Growth Mindset in action

Step 3: Conscious competence 

We can be said to achieve ‘conscious competence’ in a skill when we can perform it reliably, at will, but still with concentration and focused attention. We are much more confident, but it is not yet ‘second nature’ to us.  Trial and error, practice, self-reflection and ongoing support from a coach or mentor is often the most effective way to ensure we don’t get stuck here or give up.

Step 4: Unconscious Competence

By this stage the new behaviour is so practiced that it becomes ‘second nature’ to us.

We may even find we can do two things at once – e.g., knitting while reading a book. This is when our confidence and our ability are at a peak and can reap the benefits of our new skills. This is where change and growth expand from the learning acheived – it is that great leap forward that ensures we are thriving. 

In keeping with the circle of life, we don’t want to remain ‘stuck’ here at the top of the ladder. In fact the ‘top’ of the ladder is only a temporary new height. When we are ready to move on to our next goal  where do we end up again? Right back at stage one to start the process all over again!

  • The unconscious conscious model of learning sits in the back pocket of all great Human Centred Leaders.

As you embark on any new learning journey think about what stage you may be in when things become challenging and you are tempted to give up. Don’t give in to the inner critical voice – it wants you safely and securely at the bottom of the ladder. Remember, the comfort zone sits squarely at the bottom rung, but nothing ever grows there.

It can help to understand that the inevitable challenges are a natural part of the process and to remain consistent with your practice and journey to the Higher Curve. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit – the more complexity to the new skill or behaviour the longer.

It’s also helpful to view this model through the lens of the people you lead and inspire. As you provide them with opportunities to grow and stretch their capabilities, they too will move through the learning ladder stages. It can be particularly at steps 1, 2, and 3 that the support you provide can make all the difference on COACHING  to GROW others.


  • if we want to thrive we must consistently GROW
  • if we want to grow we must CHANGE and
  • in order to change we must LEARN

I’ll meet you at the bottom of the ladder – let’s journey together to the Higher Curve


Gabby Hartin M’Ed (USA), B’Ed (Aust.) MATID

Gabby Hartin M’Ed (USA), B’Ed (Aust.) MATID

Gabby is the Founder and CEO of Higher Curve. a Human Development Agency helping organisations utilise the uniquely human traits that will guide us through the turbulence of an unpredictable world. As a world recognised Human Development Expert, she works with organisations to unlock the human potential within. She delivers her passion across Australia and around the world.

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