Competence and Leadership: Making a Good Cup of Cocoa

By Molly Herber

Jan 27, 2016

When it comes to leadership, whether you're a team member or a designated team leader, if you don’t know what you’re doing it’s going to be difficult for you to get things done

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Knowing what to do and how to do it well is competence, or “the ability to perform a skill in a way that produces your desired results” (from the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook).

Want to be the CEO of a company? You should probably know the ins and outs of your industry and have a good set of interpersonal skills. Want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail? You probably should know how to set up a tent and prevent blisters. Competence is often the "how" on the path toward your goals.

To break down how you can develop competence NOLS-style, we’re going to talk about making hot cocoa.

1. Set Your Goal 

Map Reading in Patagonia
Photo courtesy of Alex Chang - Cornell Leadership Expedition in Patagonia.

Knowing where you are aiming will help you figure out which skills you need to get there. For our purposes, the end goal is to make a delicious cup of cocoa. What information do you need? How about equipment? Who can you ask for help to achieve your goal?

2. Get the Information

Using the NOLS Cookery
Photo by Tracy Baynes.

You can’t make cocoa if you know nothing about the ingredients or whether marshmallows are a good idea (they are). As they say, you don’t know what you don’t know.

For accomplishing any goal, it’s helpful to gather information and learn about the thing you want to accomplish. Some skills require relatively little knowledge, like learning to yo-yo; some skills, like conducting a river rescue, require much more. This is also a good time to consult some resources, like the internet and real people, with experience in the area.

3. Know Your Tools

Learning the Stove Photo courtesy of Alex Chang - Cornell Leadership Expedition in Patagonia.

Making delicious cocoa is a multi-step process. You need to know how to use a stove to boil water or milk, which container to use (don’t try boiling water in a plastic bowl, for example), and what’s the best vessel for optimal hot drink consumption.

In the same way, when setting your goals, think about the other tools you might need to get there, such as memorizing certain math formulas or learning to use power tools to build a table. Once you gather the tools, of course, you have to learn how to use them.

4. Put Your Knowledge and Tools into Practice

Making Hot Drinks
Photo by Charlotte Klein.

This is the important part: combining your knowledge and tools to try and produce the desired result. Cocoa powder, boiling hot milk, an insulated mug and a little cinnamon: all of these things come together to produce a beautiful hot beverage.

You may not get your desired result on the first try; often, building competence is a time-consuming process that requires practice and dedication. Perhaps you need a little less cocoa mix and a little more water, or you forgot your insulated mug at home. Remember, having a lot of knowledge or a lot of tools doesn’t mean that you are competent: it’s being able to put them together and make something happen that builds your competence.

5. Keep Learning

Cooking in the rain Photo by Brandon Sisino.

Sometimes, you learn a skill once and you’ve mastered it, like tying an overhand knot. Other skills require constant practice to maintain, like being able to run six miles. In other areas, new discoveries or tools may change the way you do something, like the introduction of rubber shoes to replace heavy boots in rock climbing.

It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to keep practicing a skill over and over to refine it, or whether you’re ready for the next challenge. Regardless, always having a goal in mind will help keep you growing and learning, and that growth really is the spice of life.

Now, go and enjoy that delicious cup of cocoa.

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Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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