Leaders as Teachers: Taking a Step Back from Your Expertise

A leader once said to me, “They asked me to teach the class of new managers how I make business decisions. I have absolutely no idea where to start.”

I have seen leaders experience two common reactions when asked to teach: excitement at the idea of teaching what they know and paralyzing uncertainty on how to begin.

It makes sense that we want our experts to teach. We want them to inspire, mentor, coach and train others in the organization. So how can they articulate their teachable point of view? In my experience, leaders need to take a step back from being experts in order to become truly excellent teachers.

When I am helping leaders become teachers, I start with Noel Burch’s Conscious Competence Ladder because it helps to uncover two important factors: consciousness (awareness) and skill level (competence.)

According to Burch’s “Ladder,” we move up through four levels as we build competence:

  • Unconscious Incompetence: We don’t even know that we don’t have this skill.
  • Conscious Incompetence: We become aware we don’t have the skill.
  • Conscious Competence: We know we have the skill but must focus on it in order to be good at it.
  • Unconscious Competence: We have become so competent that we don’t have to think about it in order to do it.

Leaders typically operate at a level of Unconscious Competence. In other words, they have been performing successfully for so long that things have become automatic. While this type of mastery is an effective way to work, it is not a constructive place from which to teach.

How can you teach someone else something that you do instinctually?

We can use the analogy of driving a car. After decades of driving, we no longer think about each and every step we take or all the decisions we have to make. But when it’s time to teach our teenager how to drive, suddenly we need to be able to explain all of those details. We take a step back in order to become consciously aware of everything that is necessary: adjustments we make before we start the car, how we safely watch for other cars as we drive and all of the traffic laws that need to be followed.

The process is similar for leaders who want to teach. When you know the topic you want to teach, you need to go back to the point of Conscious Competence. No longer allow yourself to just be the expert who does things automatically. Instead, focus on the things it takes to be good at this skill and all the factors you have to consider.

The more consciously you articulate what it takes to be successful, the more your students will be able to become aware of their own level of competence and build from there.

Another leader with whom I worked was teaching his team how he makes certain decisions regarding how to work with different vendors. On a break during his session, I asked him whether he had always followed this approach or if it had evolved over time. He said to me, “Oh no, I actually used to do the exact opposite. And I almost tanked the business. I had to relearn how to make these decisions and challenge myself to think differently.”

I encouraged him to share that evolution with his team, to help them understand that he hadn’t always operated from a place of Unconscious Competence. He ended up sharing significantly more details on what has formed his thinking and the types of questions he asks himself. Not only could his students relate to his stories, but they also got a deeper understanding of his thought process.

Next time you are tasked with teaching something, consider how you can go back to the point of being Consciously Competent. Ask yourself what helped you understand this concept and how you gained competence over time. Once you’ve articulated it for yourself, you will teach it much more effectively to others.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.