The four steps to mastery

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When learning to fly a Blue Angel demonstration, there were four phases of learning I had to go through:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

When I arrived at the Blue Angels to be the flight leader and commanding officer, I had just commanded a combat-proven FA-18 squadron. I knew what it took to successfully lead a squadron as the commanding officer. And while I had much more fighter jet experience than my Blue Angels wingmen, I had no previous Blue Angel flight experience. I knew there would be a lot to learn, but I didn’t truly grasp how challenging it was going to be. I was unconsciously incompetent.

As we began training for the upcoming airshow season, we started with very basic procedures and maneuvers. The goal was to get six pilots and their jets to fly 3-dimensional maneuvers in tight formation at high speed, very low altitude, only a couple feet apart! I soon began to understand I had a LOT to learn. I was now consciously incompetent.

Fighting off the usual baggage of discouragement and frustration when learning a new skill, I swallowed my fighter pilot ego and welcomed honest feedback from my five wingmen about my performance.  I worked very very hard as we flew 2-3 times a day for nearly three months in a strict training regimen of “perfect practice.” As we began the airshow season in mid-March, I could lead the team through all the maneuvers safely up to Blue Angels early-season standards. But I had to really concentrate to do it right. It was as if I had to keep all the maneuvers and procedures loaded as RAM in my conscious brain. If I let my mind wander even a bit or had a minor distraction, my performance would be affected. I was consciously competent.

After a hundred or so practice demonstrations and airshows, the fundamentals and normal routines became ingrained in my psyche. I was no longer climbing into the jet to start the show, I was strapping it on, becoming one with the machine. I now had the bandwith to factor in the local terrain, the winds, the clouds, and other conditions and tailor our maneuver profiles so the show became more artistry of power, agility, and precision than rote maneuvers. I was now unconsciously competent. This is where the exhilaration of being in “the zone” or achieving “flow” resides.

But, this is not a “set it and forget it” condition. It takes continual effort to retain mastery and avoid the slippery slope of losing your edge.

In fact, if you take it for granted you risk becoming irrelevant. What? Yep. More on that in an upcoming post.

For now, think about a skill you need to master to be a world-class leader and identify which phase you are in.

What will it take to move to the next level? Get to work building COMPETENCE.


Be a High-Trust Leader: Master the key skills needed to lead your team.

1 comments on “The four steps to mastery”

  1. George, I have the privilege of serving you when you were the boss of the blue Angels. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you at the St. Louis County fair and air show. I was impressed with you then and I continue to be impressed with you. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and look forward to reading more. Pat Finneran

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