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Knowledge, One of the Necessary Tools of a Leader: A Mastership Thesis by Master Travis Dillow

Posted: June 06, 2017



Knowledge is an essential ingredient in any leader’s arsenal, but I am pretty passionate about knowledge not being the only tool that any leader carries. In fact I would submit that the best leaders in history have never placed knowledge as their number one priority, but rather they see it is a great tool that can be used as and when needed. Anyone who has ever built anything understands the importance of working with more than one tool, but they have to have several at their disposal. In this paper we are going to focus on the tool of knowledge and how to properly use it.

Now, like any tool, knowledge has to be used in the right fashion, cared for properly, left in the tool box when it is not needed, and always applied appropriately. So let’s talk about those four things.


KNOWLEDGE MUST BE USED IN THE RIGHT FASHION: It has been said that “knowledge puffs up a person”, and although an appropriate amount of pride is needed for great leadership, too much of it causes those that follow you to disrespect you. When it comes to knowledge there are a few principles that I live by in relation how to use knowledge.

  1. Knowledge should never be used to impress. People who can’t do normally talk, those that can do seldom talk. Knowledge is a great resource for any seasoned leader, and a tool that can be applied in many different situations to help make decisions that ultimately impact the greater cause. Since leadership is 90% relational, knowledge applied wrongly, or at the wrong time can cause the leader to appear as a “know it all”. Normally those who know it all do nothing. There are a few symptoms I have recognized in leaders who place their knowledge at the front of their leadership toolbox.
  • Insecurity: Most leaders who feel like they lack in competence to perform or execute tend to rely on what they know (their knowledge) to establish credibility as a leader. People with great knowledge have the capability of learning and most of the time retaining that knowledge. My encouragement to knowledgeable insecure leaders is to apply their discipline in learning facts and details to learning leadership principles and practices that produce a well-rounded confident leader.
  • Lack of experience: It is often said that experience is the greatest teacher of all time. Some people say they are educated from the “school of hard knocks”. Street smarts and life experience are no doubt two great attributes to those who want to lead. When a leader is young in age, young in experience, or simply new to their new trade that they are asked to lead they often times try to make up for the lack of experience with knowledge. Remember, there is a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes from years of experience, knowledge comes from months of getting educated. To the leader who often uses his knowledge to impress, the first question to ask him or her is ‘what experience do you have?’ My suggestion to this type of leader is to revisit your life experience and mine out what you can apply in your current role from experience you have already had. Most people are surprised when they take an objective look at their life on how many of their real experiences can be applied to what they are doing. Once this is realized it builds confidence, which makes a better leader. A leader who learns how to use knowledge as a tool and not the foundation of his or her leadership.
  • Fear of failing: It is not always good to be afraid of failure. In fact most great leaders in history have failed way more than they have succeeded. The trick is to learning how to “fail forward.” The leader that is afraid of failing often thinks that if he or she learns all they can about the trade, then success is guaranteed. Having knowledge doesn’t guarantee success in anything, but using your knowledge in the appropriate ways, with the appropriate other tools gives you the best chance at success. Leaders who use knowledge simply to impress people often do it out of a fear of failure. It is o.k. to fail, it is not o.k. to fail because your ego accelerated the failure do to the fact that your leadership toolbox was limited to one tool…knowledge.


If knowledge is a tool, and it is one that is necessary to have, then like most tools it must be maintained. We have established that knowledge cannot be the only tool a leader relies on, but it must be used and used correctly. Knowledge comes from the mind, and the mind must be taken care of, exercised, and stretched. Of all the tools in a leader’s toolbox knowledge may be the only one that you must be intentional about maintaining, and this tool must be kept sharp. A good leader knows how to balance his training regimen to keep this tool sharp, but not focus solely on this tool and neglect the other ones. Here are a few principles I live by to keep my tool of knowledge sharp.

  • Learn stuff you don’t agree with. Knowledge is knowledge, and when maintaining yours, you must be open minded enough to learn about viewpoints that may or may not line up with yours. If all you look for is knowledge that already agrees with your predisposed disposition on topics then you really aren’t learning, you are validating your already established thoughts and opinions.
  • Always remain a student. The moment a leader decides to quit learning new things he or she is saying that they have learned everything there is to know. By continuing to learn, read, attend seminars, etc. the leader is sharpening his tool of knowledge. A sharp tool doesn’t take as much effort to use as a dull one. The quicker you can use the tool of knowledge and set it back down the better of a leader you will be.
  • Be willing to discover what you don’t know. To establish knowledge and maintain this tool you must be willing to recognize and be honest with yourself about things that you do not know. The muscle that is the weakest is the one you should exercise the most. The areas that relate the organization you are trying to lead that you know the least about are the ones you should learn the most about. It takes great self-evaluation for a leader to discover and be honest about what they don’t know. This is usually accomplished through the people that the leader surrounds him or herself with.



Have you ever packed a toolbox with tools that you thought you needed for a project, only to discover that you didn’t have room for all of them? Inevitably the one you leave at home is the one you needed to finish the job. In 100% of the cases knowledge will be that tool. When planning your training, your day, or your education make sure you leave room in what you are doing for the tool of knowledge. I know I have said that it can’t be the only tool in your toolbox, but it must always be in your toolbox. When starting out on your endeavor make sure you leave room for knowledge, because you will need it. While the other tools a leader needs are most often naturally placed in the toolbox, this one must be planned for. If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail, especially when it comes to knowledge. Here are a few pointers on making sure you leave room for knowledge.

  • Make plans to learn. Some people are planners, some are not, but almost everyone must make a plan to learn or they will never take the time to do it. Treat it like you are training for a marathon, triathlon, or any other endurance event. You must have a training plan, and you must work that plan. Make a schedule, a plan, and stick to it.
  • Get a mentor to teach you. A tutor, online courses, even schedule a seminars to attend. No one has ever done anything great in their life alone, there are no lone rangers in successful leadership. Accountability is a great thing when it comes to making sure you leave enough room in your leadership tool box for knowledge.
  • Take real life tests. Trust me on this, the knowledge you learn will be tested. Most leaders have the intuition to tell what projects will or can test their knowledge. Go ahead and sign up for the project, it is that project that will test the knowledge you should be learning. It will also give you the proper environment to use that tool. I believe in the power of a deadline. Very rarely do things happen without a deadline. If you know that the knowledge you should be learning will be tested, you are more likely to leave room in your tool box for it.


Who are you teaching, who are you mentoring, and who are you raising up to take your place? When it comes to knowledge often times the best things are learned when we are trying to teach. Eternal Grand Master Lee once said, “To learn is to teach, and to teach is to learn.” Good leaders lead strong, great leaders train those around them to lead strong. If you build the organization only on your knowledge and leadership then that organization will only grow as large as you can personally manage or wrap your mind around. Multiply yourself in the right people, who can carry the torch for you and with you. When you position yourself in the place as a mentor and teacher to students who are following you then you will always leave room for knowledge. Remember, knowledge doesn’t change people, leaders do. We teach what we know but reproduce who we are. When teaching those around you set the example with a well-rounded leadership toolbox, but make sure that knowledge is a part of it. Teaching others is also a great way to discover what you don’t know yourself. Students ask questions, some of those questions you will not know the answer to, thus this helps show you what else you need to learn.

In summary knowledge is essential for a leader to have and to use, but if it is the only tool that you use then you are an out of balanced leader. There must always be space for knowledge, but remember you must know when to use it, and how to use it. Avoid being thought of as a know it all. Knowledge is a great tool when used correctly.




KNOWLEDGE MUST BE USED IN THE RIGHT FASHION: A common challenge I recognize in the ATA is when instructors mix knowledge with rank. It is very common for black belts to acquire a level of false status just because of their rank. Rank can be achieved from solely meeting specific requirements of time and physical test requirements, but true knowledge and wisdom comes with experience. The time and effort of two 6th degree masters can be completely different. One master may just meet the bare minimum requirements set forth from the ATA and the other master have gone way above and beyond with experience in training and the amount of time put into achieving the level.  The challenge is that the master who puts in the minimum requirement immediately relates their level of knowledge and wisdom with the other master who has done much more and therefore puts on a fake level of status that makes junior instructors disrespect them. I am careful in giving advice to anyone until I know their level of knowledge and experience because in a lot of cases the one I might be trying to share knowledge to is the very one I should be receiving it from.  It is often said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Don’t get me wrong, every master should be given the respect for being a master because ATA does do a wonderful job of making sure their masters meet certain standards, however the masters must always stay relatable and humble and ready to learn more.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT MUST BE MAINTAINED: Again I can preach all day long on how an instructor must continue to train. We are the product of what we sale. Even if we are not the ones teaching the classes all the time then we must be training with the ones who are. If you try to sell a used corvette that is not kept clean or having regular engine maintenance, it makes the value of the vehicle worth less. This is like the instructor who never trains. People recognize the amount of training the instructor is doing by the mannerisms and energy the instructor shows during his teaching and people will immediately recognize whether it’s fake or real whether the instructor knows it or not. We are led by Grandmaster Soon Ho Lee and the Master’s Council who truly set a great example of being involved and always continuing their training.

          In the recent years the Master’s Council has done a great job of adapting with time and adding programs to our organization of the highest level of quality. The first and my personal favorite is the Krav Maga Program. In adapting the Krav Maga program it has allowed ATA to market to the whole UFC MMA clientele. It has also brought on the XMA training. This program allows us to stay up to date with all the Xtreme sports clientele and keep the teens who otherwise think all the traditional stuff is boring and embarrassing. Most recently the ATA has created the X-Fit program which allows us to market fitness and weight loss to the families who are involved by being in our academy every day with their kids but will never put on a uniform. I am very thankful ATA continues to have a team do research to develop and tine our existing program to be the best and highest quality of martial arts there is too offer.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT YOU MUST HAVE ROOM FOR: The most common excuse I hear from instructors that who do not train is that they say they don’t have time. Well, we are all blessed with the same 24hrs a day 7 days a week as everyone else so it is how you manage it that counts. In a regular job a high up executive will be sent for training or coaching from his organization. He may also have to meet certain standards of qualification to lead his organization at what he does and therefore does because his career depends on it. An ATA instructor should do the same and the organization supplies all that training and makes it available. It is just up to the instructor to take advantage of this training and make the time available as if his studio depends on it. The problem is a school owner is their own boss and having self-discipline to follow through and make the time available is what lacks the most.

ATA has done a better job of keeping the school owners and instructors more involved with their training in the past few years by requiring a certain amount of leadership points to advance in rank or title. I also strongly agree with the recent rule that if higher rank such as a 4th degree has 4 years to acquire mid-terms for rank advancement they must test each year to acquire that rank and not just wait until the year of testing and cram them all into one year. I believe this requires to consistently train and not put it off until they have to make a rank advancement.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT MUST BE SHARED:  The best step for ATA was during Eternal Grand Master Lee’s sickness before his passing to put together the Master’s Council. Eternal Grand Master Lee knew the future was at state if it were to all depend on his knowledge so he empowered the best leaders around him to share continue to share the vision and knowledge he had passed onto them of Songahm Taekwondo. Grand Master Soon Ho Lee then made it his goal, upon having the mantel of Grand Mastership being passed to him, to visit the entire ATA his first year of being Grand Master and share the vision and knowledge of the Master’s Council. He also advised each region of the ATA to set up positions of expertise based on their Taekwondo abilities and leadership roles such as protech, tournament, and training instructors.  In the past 11 years since Eternal Grand Master Lee’s passing, the ATA has more than doubled in size and is now in over 20 other countries and territories worldwide. Our leaders have done an amazing job in empowering other leaders to spread the knowledge of Songahm and I believe that Future Grand Master In Ho Lee and the new Master’s Council have yet to help the ATA grow to another whole new level.


KNOWLEDGE MUST BE USED IN THE RIGHT FASHION: One of the best compliments I can receive as an instructor is when one of my student’s excel at a level of skill I have taught those more than me. For example, my wife has excelled at almost all skills of Taekwondo than myself, and knowing that I have been a part of helping her reach these levels of achievements is a great honor.  Whenever I want to have the best kick, or weapon, or forms to be demonstrated I will call on her to demonstrate knowing that my other students can learn more from watching her than my own limited ability of performing these. I believe having students like her who are able to succeed in their ability of what they do, not only empowers them to lead when called on from their instructor to perform, but also allows me to continue to research and learn in other areas of skill and continue to expand our program.

          Every instructor at our school is going to be required to learn all areas of Taekwondo so they can be relatable to the students and be able to assist in all areas. However every instructor will find what they are best at and excel in just like our leaders of the ATA. In our school if it comes to self-defense and practical use of Martial arts that is where I specialize in. If our students want to succeed in double Ssahng Jeol Bongs that is my wife’s expertise. If they want to succeed in the XFIT program that is also my wife’s specialty and her instructor, Miss Carmonds. We also have instructor’s that specialize in XMA, sparring, tournaments, and forms. My goal is to coach our instructors to know a little about all these area but to be the best at what they specialize in.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT MUST BE MAINTAINED: I make a continued effort to seek new ways and methods of teaching Taekwondo and leadership skills. I visit other martial arts and try to learn and understand their ways of teaching so I can relate when asked questions about these other styles from students. I have also found ways of applying some of the principles such as Krav Maga to the style we teach. I also try to visit other ATA schools as often as possible because although we may be teaching the same style their methods and tools they use may be beneficial to myself and our students. Even schools that I couldn’t stand and disliked the most on how they were being ran or how they were teaching Songahm, I was able to get at least one idea about teaching Songahm.

I always keep myself in a position of being a student in some area other than Taekwondo so I can continually relate to students how certain things that come so natural to us as instructors with experience may not be as simple for the student. Right now I’m learning the guitar and am amazed by the instructor who teaches me how he can naturally understand the keys the music are played in and the rhythm to play them in. I’m learning songs with my two daughters and they constantly make fun of me because I can never remember the words to a song. I guess this would be like a student who has to remember the order of moves in a Songahm form or understanding the qualities of technique such as balance or timing.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT YOU MUST HAVE ROOM FOR:  I surround myself with people who have succeeded in levels of leadership other than martial arts. I believe in putting together a person board of directors in my life. I have a mentor that I can turn to for advice in all the following areas:

Financial: My cousin who has graduated from Warton and Harvard University and one a multi-million dollar Yamaha distributorship.

Fitness: My instructor who always has a training regimen that excels anyone else I know.

Family: One of the senior Pastor’s at my church who has been married over 25yrs and has his whole family of four grown up kids who work with him at the church.

Business: My best friend who runs the 9th largest church organization in the nation and is one of the fastest growing churches.

Spiritual: My pastor of the church I attend.

Some of these mentors don’t necessarily know they are on my board of directors but help hold me accountable in all these areas of my life and I know I can turn to them anytime for advice.

          When I visit other ATA schools that I consult with I am constantly amazed how they sometimes want to just spend time telling me what they are doing and how they are doing it rather than open up their knowledge tool box to learn from someone that has way more experience and wisdom. I believe God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason when it comes to knowledge. When I have a senior in the ATA come to my school I am aware of asking more questions and listening than talking. I only share my methods and ideas of what we are doing if I am asked. If I have the opportunity to learn from someone else’s wisdom and mistake’s I want to use this time most efficiently and in the long road want to save time from not making the mistakes they might have made.

KNOWLEDGE IS A TOOL THAT MUST BE SHARED: The best way to learn and understand a Songahm form or any curriculum of martial arts is by having to teach it. By teaching it to others you will be asked questions and see and have to understand the way the techniques will be applied to people of different size and ability. The student will ask questions about the technique that you may have not ever personally thought about. I am amazed after teaching Songahm 1, which is the first form in our system, for over 20yrs I still find different ways of understanding the techniques and applying them. Whenever I learn new material I try to team up with one of my instructors as soon as possible to share the material so I don’t forget it and can also break it down to its simplest form and better understand it. This truly teaches us that when you learn something you should teach it and by teaching it you will definitely learn more about it.