Leadership, Competence and Unknown Unknowns

How to prepare you and your team for the unexpected.

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© Canva


The British Army trained me to lead, and fortunately for my soldiers, they did a reasonable job.

The Concept

The start point is John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership Model of Task, Team, and Individual, as seen below:

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  1. Team: The Four Stages of Competence
  2. Individual: The Johari Window

1. The Task: Unknown Unknowns and Rumsfeld

On 12 February 2002 Donald Rumsfeld was briefing from the podium in the Pentagon about the existence of weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. It was here that he said the now famous statement:

The Knowledge Matrix

The concept is that every event, action, occurrence, or piece of information can be categorised into the following:

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How It Works

As a worked example, I will use the Improvised Explosive Device (IED) threat: a weapon used to great effect by the insurgents of Helmand province.

  1. Known Unknown: The enemy will use IEDs to target our patrols, but we do not know where or when.
  2. Unknown Known: We may fail to conduct our counter IED drills effectively, or the equipment may fail, which will raise the risk of being struck significantly.
  3. Unknown Unknown: The enemy may employ new IEDs or tactics which will counter our own procedures and tactics. As the saying goes “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.

So what did we do?

For Box 1 and 2: learn everything we possibly could about how IEDs have been used in the past, the terrain, the patrol routes, everything we could know to reduce the chance of being struck.

2. The Team: The Four Stages of Competence

Also known as the “the four levels of teaching”, it was developed by Management trainer Martin M. Broadwell in February 1969. It was repackaged and recirculated by Paul R. Curtiss and Phillip W. Warren in their 1973 book The Dynamics of Life Skills Coaching.

  1. Conscious Incompetence. The “Understanding” Stage in which people start to understand what they should be doing, but are still unable to do it effectively.
  2. Conscious Competence. The “Functional” Stage, in which people know what they have to do, and can do it satisfactorily.
  3. Unconscious Competence. The “Mastery” Stage where the correct action is innate, and can be executed without thought or deep consideration. The individual has a fundamental understanding of what is required and can apply it to unexpected scenarios.
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© NowmanUK

How It Works

This is where the Leadership element comes in. If you are able to identify where your subordinates in your team sit in this model, you can effect insight driven change.

A Team Effort

This is a Team Endeavour as much as it is an Individual one, for which the Leader is entirely responsible. If one of us stepped in the wrong place, it could have had fatal consequences for many of the team.

3. The Individual (or the Leader): The Johari Window

The Johari Window is a method by which you can conduct a comprehensive review of your own mindset, abilities, knowledge — anything you decide to approach with the framework.

The Importance of Effective Leadership

This is critical for the Leader. Authentic Leadership, to my mind, is the only Leadership Style which matters.

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4. The Knowledge Competence Model

This model is simply a route map through the analytical process that has already been described.

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This article, I hope, will at least provide a start point for any reader that has made it this far, for which I am grateful!

Leader | Writer | Army Officer | Husband | Dad. Not in that order. Focus on Leadership, Personal Growth & Self Improvement.

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