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Leadership Forum: August 2009

How can people improve if they don’t know what they don’t know?

Good leadership requires that individuals be aware of who they are (inward reflection) and what improvement is needed. Self-improvement is generally accomplished through informal development opportunities such as interaction with colleagues and participation in conferences but participation in formal education programs plays a significant role too.

July 27, 2009
By David Hodgins

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How can people improve if they don’t know what they don’t know?

Good leadership requires that individuals be aware of who they are (inward reflection) and what improvement is needed. Self-improvement is generally accomplished through informal development opportunities such as interaction with colleagues and participation in conferences but participation in formal education programs plays a significant role too. Another excellent opportunity for personal development is available through self-assessment programs. These programs can be quite good and the analysis offered addresses who we are, how we behave and how we can improve.

I have participated in at least four of these structured self-assessment programs during my career and each time I have benefited from finding out how I could become a better person and a more capable leader. One of the most widely recognized programs is the Myers-Briggs (MB) Personality Assessment. The MB assessment focuses on an individual’s preference for four personality traits: one’s bent toward being an extrovert or introvert; how one takes in information and uses it; and how one forms judgments and perceptions.

According to Dr. John Moffatt of Blackstock Moffatt Associates in Sherwood Park, Alta., there are four stages of competence that individuals need to understand as part of their growth process. Moffatt and his partner, Dr. Judy Blackstock, are organization development consultants. They also have in-depth knowledge of leadership development needs and opportunities in fire and emergency management organizations. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, describes the four stages (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence ):

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  1. Unconscious incompetence – The individual neither understands or knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit or has a desire to address it.
  2. Conscious incompetence – Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  3. Conscious competence – The individual understands or knows how to do something; however, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  4. Unconscious competence – The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes second nature and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able teach it to others, depending on how and when it was learned.

Think of these stages as they relate to the game of golf. In stage one, a novice golfer swings at the ball. The ball takes a sharp right-hand turn and ends up in the rough. The novice golfer does not know how to play golf or have the skill to be considered a golfer. In stage two, the individual does not know how to play golf but recognizes that she has not yet developed the required skills. In stage three, the individual understands what is expected and knows he must concentrate on several body motions to ensure a good shot. In stage four, well, think of Tiger Woods.

How does this relate to self-assessment? This program is a tool that can be used as individuals pursue self-improvement. It’s a practical tool that will provide essential and strategic knowledge that can be used to define and then refine self-improvement education and training goals and objectives. Typically, a program will reveal your characteristics, interests, values and skills. It will also define your strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps most importantly, it will help you to understand how you perceive the world and how you make decisions.

Take a minute to review these qualities and ask if you have what it takes to be a good leader.

  • Am I accountable and responsible?
  • Do I view problems as opportunities?
  • Am I a critical and creative thinker?
  • Do I work well under pressure?
  • Do I experiment and take appropriate risks?
  • Do I have a positive attitude?
  • Do I routinely ask what have I changed today?
  • Do I continually seek innovation?
  • Am I a strategic thinker?
  • Am I customer/client service focused?
  • Do I articulate and live my values and beliefs?
  • Do I inspire and motivate others towards a shared vision?
  • Am I an effective communicator?
  • How important is winning?
  • Do I involve others and foster collaboration?

As Mark Twain put it: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia and a 30-year veteran of the fire service. Contact him at David.Hodgins@gov.ab.ca


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