Practical Knowledge and Leadership

[June 4, 2018]  Practical knowledge is incredibly important to any leader and life in general.  Not only is it useful in its immediate application to a laundry list of everyday problems but it can be achieved only through personal experience in failure.  You read that right … only through failure.

“Besides the practical knowledge which defeat offers, there are important personality profits to be taken. Defeat strips away false values and makes you realize what you really want. It stops you from chasing butterflies and puts you to work digging gold.” – William Moulton Marston, American psychologist, inventor, and self-help author

There’s a favorite cartoon of mine that shows several U.S. Army officers standing over a forlorn-looking Private who is at a computer terminal.  The Private is thinking to himself, “Mental note to self: never again, will I, under any circumstances disclose to anyone that I know how to use Microsoft Excel.1

There are, of course, many types of knowledge and different ways of acquiring each kind.  On one side of a continuum, we find theoretical knowledge2 and on the other practical knowledge.  Both are useful and those most successful in life acquire both in a variety of ways.  The Private in the cartoon is demonstrating the usefulness of practical knowledge.

I once knew a politician who told me that what he learned about life was acquired in the “school of hard knocks.”  He was a very practical man who was successful as a truck driver and later as a city politician.  I admired him for his reliability to get things done quickly and efficiently.  This required considerable leadership skills; nearly all of it learned the hard way.

Frankly, there is no substitute for practical experience.  It builds confidence, reduces the ineffective behavior, increases team effectiveness, reduces stress and risks, and helps eliminate biases in our decision-making.  The leadership lesson is simple; there is no substitute for experience.


  1. The cartoon is from The Best of the Best, of the Best of PVT Murphy’s Law by Mark Baker, 2005.
  2. Theoretical knowledge teaches the why. It helps you understand why one technique works where another fails. It shows you the whole forest, builds the context, and helps you set strategy.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

30 thoughts on “Practical Knowledge and Leadership

  1. Drew Dill

    Personally, I have found that in business that you look for those employees who have the practical knowledge to quickly and efficiently get the job done. I reward them and do my best to take care of them. I know this is all about leadership but I wanted to point out that not all employees have it or can obtain it.

  2. Janna Faulkner

    Yes, and I thought no one else saw the tab.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      The tab for “Daily Favorties”. Check it out, everyone.

  3. Georgie M.

    I two days from now is the anniversary of D-Day; a day that has been studied and discussed more than any other battle. It was the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime. Those who came ashore that day, June 6, were more interested in practical knowledge than anything else. I think so anyway. The History channel has a good summary here:

  4. Anita

    Thanks Tracey for pulling us back to the basics. Yes, I do agree and these articles are best read together.

  5. Tracey Brockman

    We should start with the question, “what is knowledge?” In a Psychology Today article (yes, I know it’s extremely biased) that addresses this very issue. Gregg Henriques, PhD does a fair job in a short article to get at this very idea. That is the starting point for any discussion on types of knowledge and its value.

  6. Jerome Smith

    Here’s another good article on practical knowledge and puts it into perspective on five types of knowledge. I’m sure we could have more or less categories of knowledge but Gen. Satterfield’s article and this one are complimentary to one another.

  7. Roger Yellowmule

    Great topic for a Monday morning and for those who only believe “book learnin'” is what matters. Take it from me who spent a few years in the US Navy and from a lot of time on the shop floor of a large manufacturing company, practical knowledge matters a whole lot. Ignore those employees who have it only to your peril.

  8. Greg Heyman

    Thanks Gen Satterfield for also introducing us to the PVT Murphy’s Law by Mark Baker. I had never seen it before and now I’m a fan of his.

    1. Wilson Cox

      Love it. You have to be a veteran to really get the fully humor but it is still good for everyone.

  9. Mr. T.J. Asper

    On the playing field where athletes compete, practical knowledge trumps all. You have to see it at my level, watching the players compete with one another to win the game to fully understand how important practical knowledge is.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Well said and reinforced by Jelly below in his comments too.

    2. Danny Burkholder

      Ain’t that the truth! 🙂

    3. Tomas C. Clooney

      We need more like you Mr. TJ in teaching. Only folks like you can overcome the stupidity out there.

  10. Gil Johnson

    Good article on a down-to-earth topic. Thanks.

  11. Delf A. "Jelly"

    Practical knowledge has always been in high demand and is rewarded, although not at the level we would expect it to be. I think Army Captain is correct when he says it is most important at the junior leader level. This is the tactical level of effort. At higher levels of leadership, strategic thinking (or theoretical knowledge) is more valued, I think, because it is more difficult.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Points well taken. Thanks Jelly.

    2. Scotty Bush

      Yes, I also agree with this division of knowledge into categories and the value on some knowledge over other types.

  12. Lynn Pitts

    There will always be a need for practical knowledge. Good article. Thank you.

  13. Army Captain

    At the junior leader level, this is particularly important. We’ve all seen it and should acknowledge its usefulness. That is why one needs to be working personally hard to ensure they pick up those skills early in life and practice them continuously.

  14. Max Foster

    I just want to put in a comment on your DAILY FAVORITES. I truly like the links you provide. Implied are strategic thinking by senior leaders. While most of the posts are European and US-centric, they apply to us all. Thanks.

    1. Darryl Sitterly

      Yes, I wanted to say the same.

    2. José Luis Rodriguez

      I agree with you Max. I read them daily. Some very good articles here.

    3. Yusaf from Texas

      All thumbs up on this. I fully agree too.

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