Competence: Seeking mastery

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The question being asked is “Are you skilled enough to be our leader? our teammate? our coach? our teacher? our parent? etc.

Keeping the focus on professional relationships (for the moment), what would it take to be world-class in your current position? Why would you settle for something less?


Here is today’s BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious): to be an expert requires the ability to become very skilled and then continuous learning to adapt and grow to remain world-class. It requires continual improvement, continual learning, continual growth. In other words — training.

Are you training every day to improve your professional skills?

How effective is your training? How do you know?

When learning how to fly the Blue Angel flight demonstration, each pilot goes through four phases:

1. Unconscious incompetence: When I started Blue Angel training, I didn’t realize how big my skill-gap was. I had thousands of tactical jet flight hours on and off aircraft carriers, night and day, good weather and bad, combat ops, and Topgun training, but I didn’t have any Blue Angel flight time.

I knew it’d be hard, but I underestimated how hard.

2. Conscious incompetence: After my first few flights, I realized the extent of my skill-gap. Thankfully I had a great team with me that was committed to my success, giving detailed constructive feedback after every flight, holding up the mirror regarding my performance (“We don’t grade on effort, only performance.”).

It was up to me to accept the feedback without getting defensive or discouraged, to realize it was a wonderful gift.

3. Conscious competence: I was now skilled enough to fly a Blue Angel airshow, but every movement required conscious attention. I was like a computer with everything stuffed into RAM. Any momentary distraction or inattention would jeopardize my performance. It took a while, but the disciplined repetition formed new habits of thinking and behaving, called “muscle memory.” Along the way I hit several plateaus where my performance leveled-off despite continual effort.

It took perseverance to minimize frustration and keep working.

4. Unconscious competence: The procedures, radio-calls, and mechanics of flying the airshow became second nature. I felt I wasn’t climbing into the cockpit, but rather, strapping the jet onto my back. I became one with the jet and now my brain had the bandwith to absorb and process lots of additional information — winds, clouds, terrain, density altitude, etc. Now I could take my performance (and the team’s) to a whole new level. But the work of continual improvement is never done.

We must always look for new ways to enhance performance: setting goals, seeking expert coaching/instruction, welcoming feedback, minimizing frustration, measuring progress, celebrating improvement in an upward spiral of increased skill and relevance in an ever-changing world.

PRACTICE — between each level of learning is a whole lot of practice. But not just any practice, because we didn’t believe the adage “Practice makes perfect.” Practice drives consistency, and if you’re practicing poorly, haphazardly, incorrectly, half-heartedly, your performance will reflect it.

We said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Every flight was a rehearsal, building and strengthening the brain’s neural pathways that scientists tell us is key to consistently outstanding performance.

The Blue Angel axiom was “Practice until you get it right and then keep practicing until you can’t get it wrong.”


1. Pick a skill that would raise your game and set a modest goal to achieve in a week.

2. Develop a one-week training plan to help you develop the skill. Set specific, achievable objectives for the end of the week. Note: We’re not seeking mastery in one week. The goal is to move the needle in a positive direction and pay attention to how you learn.

3. Learn to accept conscious incompetence and the unavoidable mistakes that come with achieving conscious competence and beyond. Each mistake is a lesson; don’t lose the lesson.

4. Overcome the discomfort of asking for and receiving candid, expert feedback. It shows you care and are committed. Others will notice and raise their level of trust in you as you improve.

Be a high-trust leader with continual improvement, continual learning, continual growth. In other words — training.