Avoiding Mount Stupid

Working at a leadership academy doesn’t mean I know everything about leadership. If anything, it means I know how much I don’t know about guiding others and advancing community.

Living in this world often forces me to question how good I am at practicing what I preach. I spend my days thinking about how to lead people, accomplish goals, build better relationships and improve the community. In fact, I spend so much time thinking and reading about these concepts, that I’m often acutely aware of when I fall short. Whether I’m reading a leadership book, leading a class or running my own organization, I have moments when I think, “Huh, you missed the mark.” 

But then I stop to remind myself that those feelings mean I’m constantly striving to be better, to learn more — both traits of effective leaders. You’re never “done” when it comes to leadership. It’s a lifelong journey of self-exploration, lessons and perseverance.

The Dunning Kruger Effect

Have you heard of the Dunning Kruger Effect? Its a cognitive bias that accounts for when people who are incompetent are unable to recognize their own incompetence. Often, they feel overconfident in their abilities.

In other words, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. Or as Socrates said, “the wisest man realizes he knows nothing at all.” It’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon that explores the relationship between confidence, knowledge and expertise.

Why Your Kid Thinks They Can Fly

Consider 3-year-old child in a cape and boots preparing to fly from the top of a playground structure. Unless an adult steps in, that sweet soul is destined for a hard lesson because of his overconfidence. He doesn’t have enough life experience to realize we cannot fly like our cartoon heroes.

As adults, we may approach life sans cape, but we may continue to overestimate our abilities where we have limited experience. If we’ve never led before, then we might think it’s easy because we don’t have enough experience to know how difficult it is.  

As we embark on new experiences, there’s an inverse relationship between confidence and experience. We start on “Mount Stupid,” where we’re crowned with a dangerous combination of confidence and little experience. Over time, however, we gain experience, and confidence diminishes as we set up residence at the “Reality Resort.” Experience erodes our confidence as we begin to learn what we didn’t previously know. 


As you can see there is  in inverse relationship between confidence and experience, for awhile. At the top is “Mount Stupid” where we have a lot of confidence, and little experience, a dangerous combination as we are prone to vastly overrate our abilities. Over time, however, as we gain experience, confidence diminishes. Experience erodes our confidence as we begin to learn what didn’t know when we started. 

Eventually You Can Fly

The good news, of course, is that with enough experience our confidence returns. Rather than confidence born from ignorance, we acquire a truer confidence informed by experience, and at that point we begin to approach expertise. Hello, “Planet Progress.”

Look at the chart one more time. Although confidence returns as we reach expert status, it’s never as high as it was when we lived on “Mount Stupid.” Learning is never done. Wil Davis (author, celebrated community leader and the co-founder of Ontario Systems) is one of the best thinkers I know, and he often states he is still learning about leadership. That humble perspective empowers me to lean into the fact we are never “done.” I’ve now celebrate leadership as a journey, rather than a destination.

This is why I say Shafer Leadership Academy helps people learn to lead. Our job is to help people start their own journey through this arch, to consider they things they may not know and to work towards a truer confidence. We want to help you develop a greater self-awareness to improve how you interact with the world, and thus, how the world perceives and interacts with you. 

Self-awareness is the first step toward emotional intelligence. Click here to learn more about SLA’s Emotional Intelligence program from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, at Muncie’s Innovation Connector

If you want to learn more about the Dunning Kruger Effect, check out this Forbes article, “Why Some People Think They’re Great Even When Their Work Is Terrible.”

About the author:

Mitch Isaacs was named Shafer Leadership Academy’s Executive Director in May 2015. In this role, he works closely with the organization’s board of directors to fulfill the mission of the organization. He is responsible for creating vision, connecting with stakeholders, administering program offerings and leading the organization in meaningful ways.  Learn more about Mitch »