Models of Mastery – The Power of Five


Many classic models of mastery specify five steps or dimensions are needed in order to succeed. For example, Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline”, described as a seminal management book, follows this template. Many models also use geometric triangles and stars to visually illustrate these concepts and associated steps. This article examines the underlying philosophical and psychological foundations as to why. Hopefully, this will shed new light on a topic that impacts tens of millions of professionals in their daily work lives.

Models are conceptual constructs that aspire to represent real things or processes that to a large extent are hidden for the senses and to the ordinary experience. Models have a role to describe, represent, explain, and ‘translate’ the world … Although models are partial and just approximations to the truth, they are not fictional or conventional at all. They try to represent their referents in a truthful and objective way with the hope to constantly improve or replace them with better approximations or more precise explanations.”  Source

Mastery is defined as the “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment”. Its root meaning is ancient but recognizable today thousands of years later. “Meg” is the Proto-Indo-European term for “great”. It not only informs “mastery” but also “magnitude”, “magnificence”, “major” and “maharajah”.

Mastery is generally achieved in stages over time. This holds true for most professions and related skills, from potters and carpenters to lawyers and physicians. The ancient, still-going-strong, system of apprenticeship training is a good example. There are three basic grades assigned to practitioners – apprentice, journeyperson, and master. Each has its own prescribed set of scaffolded skills and requirements.  Members graduate to a higher level of standing only after testing and evaluation by the senior-most masters. This process could take decades.

During the Middle Ages, to teach at a university one had to become a “magister” or “master of the arts.” The student attained this designation by learning and then joining together different domains of knowledge. First came the Trivium consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Then came the Quadrivium consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The basic idea behind this academic tradition continues today, that is the step by step process of knowledge and skill acquisition.

Many well-known contemporary models associate achieving mastery with five steps or dimensions of endeavor. In this article, the following models will be examined: –

  • Patricia Benner “Five Stages of Clinical Competence”
  • Jim Collin “Level 5 Leadership”
  • Stuart E. Dreyfus “Five-Stages of Adult Skill Acquisition”
  • Vlatka Hlupic “Five Levels to Engagement”
  • Abraham Maslow “Hierarchy of Needs: Five Stages”
  • John Maxwell “5 Levels of Leadership”
  • Peter Senge “Fifth Discipline”
  • US Army Program “Five Star Dimensions of Strength”


The numbers we use today – zero (0) to nine (9) – were first conceived millennia ago in the sub-continent of India. From the beginning, there’s been seemingly universal recognition of the profound relationship between the mathematical utility and philosophic meaning of these ciphers. For example, the concept of zero was first expressed as a graphic symbol in the form of a dot called a Bindu in Sanskrit. This dot was also called śūnya, meaning void or empty. It was perceived as being like a seed. That is, in itself inert and unmanifest, but from which life springs and returns.

The Buddha is often depicted with the index finger and thumb of one hand in the form of a circle. This too symbolizes the void. Given the commercial and cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and the Arabian Gulf, the term śūnya was eventually transliterated into Arabic as sifra or cipher. In the twelfth century C.E, an Italian mathematician nicknamed Fibonacci wrote the Liber Abaci, or The Book of Calculation. In it, he introduces the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to the West for the first time. The cipher for nothingness was included. Being fluently multilingual, Fibonacci transliterated sifra into the similar sounding Latinate term, zefiro.

The original concept of zero has been depicted in other ways as well. For example, in ancient Vedic belief, Hiranyagarbha is the golden egg of the universe. The Ouroboros biting its own tale is another striking example. This also recalls Einstein’s famous observation that “imagination encircles the world”.

High Five

Like zero, the number five (5) is similarly associated with profound, far-reaching meaning that transcends computational utility. Indeed, this numeral was believed to be sacred and seen to be “engendered in the rhythm of the life of Nature itself” (Don Pavey, Personal Correspondence, 2006).  To start, the human body has five parts and the human hand has five fingers. Humans have five senses: sight – hearing – taste – smell – touch. During the 1500s, it was believed that there were also five “inner” senses called “wits”, namely “common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation, and memory.”. Today we still refer to ‘common sense’, what Aristotle referred to as “sensus communis.” (

Humans are imbued with an innate capacity to recognize patterns. Apropos, many forms in nature repeat a common design that may be explained and replicated using geometry.  The golden ratio is defined, “when a line is divided into two parts and the longer part (a) divided by the smaller part (b) is equal to the sum of (a) + (b) divided by (a), which both equal 1.618” (  For example, Phi, the basis for the golden ratio is seen frequently in nature as a spiral.  It also informs the creation of pyramids, the Parthenon, and the Mona Lisa as well as other artifacts pleasing to the eye aesthetically. This correlation between nature and geometry is also seen in self-replicating growth patterns of the five-point star including five-petal flowers and starfish. Ancient Egyptian priests used the square root of five to formulate and construct a perfectly proportioned five-point star.

This same pattern was also associated with the transit of Venus. “When plotted geocentrically – from an Earth-centered perspective – there is a highly noticeable rhythm in the motion of Venus. After 8 years, it returns to the same place in the sky on the same date. This was known to, and of great interest to, ancient peoples such as the Maya, and many today know it as the famous Venus cycle, or the “pentagram of Venus. In a similar vein, Sopdet was an Egyptian goddess and personification of Sirius, which she is traditionally pictured with as a five-point star.

For these ancients, the star symbolized the invisible powerful “Fifth Element”. This only appeared when the four natural elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth were harmonized. They called this fifth element, “Quintessence” meaning excellencethe best something may possibly be. The human form itself when arms and legs are extended is star-like in appearance. This correspondence was famously illustrated by the ancient Roman engineer and architect, Vitruvius, and later rendered even more famously by the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Given these historical and psychological reasons, the five-point star is a universal symbol of excellence and power around the world today. More than forty nations feature such stars on their flags. This includes democratic, communist, and Islamic nations with otherwise generally incompatible, even inimical, political systems and ideologies. Police wear star badges to uphold the law. Heroes are awarded medals in the form of stars for courage and sacrifice. Children receive report cards with gold stars for good behavior. A general receives a star as a symbol of their command.

The Apex

The “triangle is also a basic form in Nature. When the molecules of salt deposit themselves as a solid, the first shape they assume is that of a triangle. A flame is triangular in shape; hence, the word pyramid from the Greek pyr, or fire.”

The classic geometric star consists of five conjoined equally proportioned triangles. Its highest point is the apex. This completes the star and gives it crowning form. The apex points upwards towards unlimited possibility. The triangle may also be rendered in three dimensions as a pyramid. Accordingly, the apex of the triangle or pyramid represents the same epitome of mastery and excellence. “The ancient Greeks called the letter D (the triangular delta) “the vehicle of the Unknown Deity.” The Boeotians wrote the word Zeus with a delta, from which came the Latin Deus.” This same symbolism is found today on the American dollar bill illustrated by the all-seeing eye of providence at the top.

Beam of Balance

Ancient philosophers also called the number five (5) “the beam of balance”. This beam is the physical center point on which a set of scales is placed. Pythagoras enjoined his disciples and followers to “step not beyond the beam of the balance.”  In other words, “do not overstep the bounds of equity and justice” ( The highest level of wisdom is needed for the fair administration of justice, which involves both compassion and severity. This primal association of number five (5) also remains subliminally embodied in popular culture today. The “high five” is an almost universal kinesthetic tactile bonding action when two individuals extend their hands upwards and slap palms in celebration of success.


Five Stages of Clinical Competence

“Five Stages of Clinical Competence” is a model developed by Dr. Patricia Benner, a nursing theorist, outlined in her 1984 book “From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice”. It’s adapted from the Dreyfus Model, which is reviewed below. Her book “introduced the concept that expert nurses develop skills and understanding of patient care over time through a sound educational base as well as a multitude of experiences.” She later expanded this model to include: “four aspects of a person’s understanding (the role of the situation, the role of the body, the role of temporal concerns, and the role of temporality), as well as five dimensions of the body to which nurses attend” 

Benner was named a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing in 2011. She is the Chief Faculty Development Officer for Educating Nurses, the Director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching National Nursing Education and honorary fellow of the Royal College of Nursing.

Level 5 Leadership

Level 5 Leadership is a model developed by Jim Collins, an author, and expert on corporate growth and sustainability. This was first introduced in a 2001 Harvard Business Review article and then his book, “Good to Great.” It’s sold 2.5 million copies and translated into 32 languages. His conceptual model of mastery “refers to the peak of a five-tier hierarchy of leadership… A Level 5 Leader is someone who embodies a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” This is based on his foundational research which examined 1435 companies and ultimately identified only 11 that could truly be considered “great.”

Howard B. Esbin, PhD
My professional life spans the private sector, international development, philanthropic fundraising, and entrepreneurship. Part one, from 1973 – 1988, was spent in the jewellery industry. This included senior management roles in retail and manufacturing. Part two, from 1991 – 1997, involved consulting and senior manager roles in international development. The former included working in Kenya with the International Labour Organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Royal Netherlands Government Embassy. This involved original field research and recommendations for youth entrepreneurship and artisans called Jua Kali. I also later oversaw a $3M fair-trade enterprise called Bridgehead owned by Oxfam Canada. Part three, from 1998 – 2004, saw me as a director of an annual, volunteer-driven philanthropic fundraising event, called HOPE Beachfest. This was the world’s largest one-day volleyball tourney (10,000 players) with an all-day rock concert (15,000 party-goers). Part four, from 2008 – 2018, involves my time as an entrepreneur developing and launching the Prelude Suite™. Additionally, from 1984 – 1998, I attended McGill University on a part-time basis earning three successive degrees culminating with a doctorate in education. My research examined how a carvers’ community transmitted its visual knowledge generationally, informally and non-verbally. Education Canada, the International Labour Organization, and UNESCO have also published my related writings.
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