You can’t tell – or sell – anyone anything until you can seize their attention!

The Four Stages of Personal Control

By John Counsel

Until we’re confronted by our lack of control over a situation, we tend to assume that we’re in control. The reality’s usually quite different. This chart shows what happens to us on our way to personal control.

The vertical axis represents the Control Continuum – in control at the top and absence of control at the bottom.

The horizontal axis represents time.

Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence

Most of us aren’t even on the graph yet! We’re at Stage 1b – but we THINK we’re at 1a (in control). It’s a counterfeit. A fake. We don’t even know how much we don’t know. Ignorance is bliss!

Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence

When the realisation of our lack of control eventually dawns on us, it’s always a sudden and terrifying event. We “plunge from the heights” to finally arrive on the graph at Stage 2… CONSCIOUS Incompetence.

The only reason that the plunge doesn’t harm us physically is because we were never at the top of the graph in the first place. We only THOUGHT we were. Now we know better.

This transition is critical, and until it happens, the person simply won’t be interested in hearing that they’re not in control… that they have unmet needs or that they’re at risk.

You can’t sell or tell anyone anything until you can first get their attention.

As a seller or teacher, you need to be able to push them over the edge before you’ll get their attention. (Please understand that this is only figurative!)

But understand, too, that they’re going to experience some degree of fear, depending on their situation. You need to ensure (in advance) that they see you as a valued source of help, not as the cause of their fear.

If you can become skilled at bringing about this transition, so that you have their undivided attention and their hope for a solution, you’ll succeed brilliantly.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence

Now we begin what my good friend, the late Roger Anthony of “Crocodiles, Not Waterlilies”, called “the Crocodile Path”… the long, slow path to control through learning, repetition, mental checklists, acquiring the knowledge, attitudes and skills that will put us in control of this particular situation in our lives. Practice makes perfect. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so eloquently…

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do it is increased.”

Roger called it “the Crocodile Path” because it’s not a smooth track. Our footprints will be either side of the median curve, representing the inevitable “three steps forward and two steps back” pattern that learning seems to always entail.

Ultimately, though, we become increasingly knowledgeable and skilled in these areas of our lives. Our progress accelerates as the exponential learning/growth curve sweeps upward until we reach the stage where we don’t even have to think about what we’re doing.

We’ve now reached the point of true mastery

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence

Until we reach this point, we’re neither independent nor reliable, and our usefulness to others is limited. This is the point at which intelligent leaders aim in teaching their followers. The sooner they can become truly independent in their own right, the sooner they can all work together, synergistically, to create solutions and provide strengths and resources to overcome each other’s weaknesses and deficiencies.

This is the ultimate form of leverage in any business.

Ironically, the prospect of everyone being independent and creative tends to terrify most managers — and they begin building fiefdoms and introducing distractions in order to remain “in control”.


This kind of absence of vision should immediately disqualify that manager as unfit to achieve the vision of the organisation. Instead, they’re usually rewarded with promotion.

The Peter Principle* is alive and well, even in small businesses.

(* “In any organisation, the individual rises to their level of incompetence.” In other words, the entire outfit ends up staffed by incompetents who, if they’d stayed at a level or two lower in the hierarchy, would be much more productive, creative — and happy!)