‘Dangun’ as CEO
By Jason Lim
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ When you are here at the Kennedy School for any length of time, you soon realize that its world-famous Executive Leadership programs are in high demand. These weeklong programs bring to Cambridge senior executives and government officials eager to learn from faculty renowned in their study of leadership and partake in deep and frank dialogue with fellow students from all over the world. And I mean from all over the world because it’s not uncommon to hear heated discussion in Mandarin in one corner of the main building among Chinese Communist Party officials dressed in formal suit and tie and hear an equally heated discussion in Arabic among Middle Eastern businessmen looking exotic in their dignified modesty. All in all, here you can witness how leadership training has certainly become a worldwide phenomenon.
Jim Collin’s best-selling book, ``Good to Great,’’ has been a mainstay of the leadership field for the past several years. Jim Collins emphasizes the essential presence of a Level 5 leader for a company to go from being a merely good company to one that is great. The two indispensable and paradoxical characteristics of a Level 5 leader, Collins explains, are his deep humility and unshakeable professional will for the collective good of the organization. These characteristics are counterintuitive in that personal ambition and strong ego, two characteristics that often typify effective business leadership, actually obstructs one’s rise to Level 5 leadership status.
To illustrate the point, Collins explains, ``Level 5 leaders want to see the company even more successful in the next generation, comfortable with the idea that most people won’t even know that the roots of that success trace back to their efforts.’’ In contrast, Collins further explains that ``(lesser) leaders, concerned with their own reputation for personal greatness, often failed to set the company up for success in the next generation. After all, what better testament to your own personal greatness than that the place falls apart after you leave?’’
So, how do you become a Level 5 leader? That’s where Collins runs into a wall. In fact, he actually quotes a successful chief executive asking the same question, ``Can you learn to become a Level 5 leader?’’ To this, Collins has no answer.
That’s because Collins has been looking in the wrong place. The key to learning to become a Level 5 leader lies not in the scientific management tradition of the West, but in the enlightened leadership tradition of the East.
The trouble with bringing up Eastern enlightened leadership tradition in business management or politics is that it seems unbusinesslike and soft, not applicable in the rough and tumble world of real leadership environment. At best, Eastern enlightenment traditions provide the philosophical underpinning for the New Age mumbo-jumbo or supply catchy mantras for trendy meditation techniques used to relieve stress before going back out into the world to ``go get’em’’ once more.
Before making preconceived judgments over the softness of enlightenment, however, we should remember that Eastern study of enlightenment was, in some sense, the management science of ancient civilization. Enlightenment was not only some religious goal that we associate it with; enlightenment was a definite and reachable goal of conscious understanding and awareness to aid in personal growth and leadership development, especially for the kings and princes.
Based upon the belief that one’s level of understanding of reality determined one’s immediate future, enlightenment was sought after as an essential tool to mold the environment according to one’s ideals and ambitions. In today’s lingo, study of enlightenment could be likened to an intensive course in ``self-empowerment,’’ imparting that mental edge that drives one leader to succeed while another fails.
But at the same time, we have to realize that enlightenment leadership training was not purely an intellectual exercise. The ancients knew that leadership was a product of choices made by an individual, choices that are based upon his or her character. And personal character is a function of deep?seated values. As such, leadership training was a matter of helping individuals to become “enlightened” to values that stress the importance of life and contentment in self as well as others in equal measures. From such mutual respect and cooperation will we grow the authentic creativity and industry needed to lead Korea forward into the global age. One who champions such ``enlightenment’’ leadership education is truly an authentic leader.
Is such a leader possible in Korea? Well, yes. He was called Dangun and he founded Ancient Joseon 4,340 years ago on the principle of ``Hongik Ingan,’’ which translates roughly into ``Widely Benefit All Humankind.’’ Notwithstanding the debate concerning the historical authenticity of Dangun, his leadership principle certainly could use a place in today’s leadership discussion. Would Dangun succeed as CEO in today’s business environment? No one can know. But I suspect that he would have that combination of deep humility and unshakeable professional will that characterizes a Level 5 leader.
Jason Lim is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Administration.