Mad Cow Leadership Lesson
By Jason Lim
He is judged, even by his closest associates, as aloof and arbitrary, apt to make decisions in solitude and only welcoming advice in keeping with his personal choices. He also makes poor cabinet appointments based on their party loyalty and campaign support. He tends to be peremptory and condescending to those people whom he really needs to convince in order to help him achieve his policy objectives.
No, I am not writing about President Lee Myung-bak, although these probably sound very familiar to the critics who are accusing President Lee of a leadership failure in the ongoing mad cow fiasco.
I am actually paraphrasing what historians have written about President Woodrow Wilson, the leader who proposed the League of Nations at the end of the World War I and inspired the world with his vision of peace and harmony but failed to pass it through his own Congress and died a bitter man.
Let's examine another American president:
He chose advisors and political partners without little regard to their party affiliations. As an example, he chose George Marshall as his secretary of state, an avowed independent, because of the universal respect and credibility that Marshall brought to the position, a choice that directly impacted the successful implementation of the Marshall Plan. In fact, his choices for his cabinet were deemed so effective that some cabinet members were popularly termed the ``wise men." In fact, he worked effectively with two different Congresses with two different majorities in achieving his foreign policy agenda.
The president in question here is the much less celebrated President Truman whose popularity rating, near the end of his term, reached the lowest of any American president up to that point. But he is judged today as one of the best presidents of the 20th Century and credited for his Truman Doctrine for laying the groundwork for the eventual victory in the Cold War.
I make the comparison between these two American presidents because they impart leadership lessons that can shed light on some of the questions facing Korea today:
What led to the de-facto popular rebellion against the policies of the new government? What caused the incoming president's popularity to drop from 52 percent to 17 percent within the first 100 days of his term? How did his nickname, Bulldozer, become a term of derision today from one of admiration just a few months ago? What happened and why?
According to pundits, there are almost as many reasons for the mad cow protests and freefall of President Lee's popular support as there are people protesting. But as many pundits also point out, the essence of protests is not just about policies. It's more about MB's leadership. That's why many critics are calling this a failure in the president's leadership style, pointing mainly to his arbitrary decision-making tendencies and lack of communication with the people.
But these pronouncements don't really help in analyzing the situation. It's easy to point to a seeming failure or setback and call it an example of a leadership failure. But that's not that helpful in understanding the underlying fundamentals of the situation because you are defining leadership solely on whether a specific initiative is successful or not in the short run.
Then what happens when all this blows over, as it will sooner or later? What happens when the beef import deal really does lead to the passage of the FTA in the U.S. Congress and drives the Korean economy to be more productive and increases the quality of life in Korea for everyone? What happens when the cross-country channel is built and turns out to be a boom to the economy and environment alike? What happens to LMB's leadership failures then?
Does his supposed arbitrary decision-making style suddenly become visionary leadership? Will his lack of communication with the people be redefined as virtuous silence?
You see now where I am going. Leadership cannot be judged solely by the short-term result of a decision or in the context of the latest crisis because leadership is not just the end. It's also the means. In other words, leadership is a process by which a decision is informed, discussed, and made.
And when you examine MB's leadership in this light, his failure does not lie in his personality or communication style. It's a failure in the lack of diversity of his inner circle, something that had been pointed out many times already. In fact, sarcastic terms such as ``Ko So-young" and ``Kang Bu-ja" have been specifically coined to reflect MB's appointment of senior advisers and cabinet members with similar backgrounds.
When discussing the successful elements of effective leadership, Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard Kennedy School stresses the need to enhance the organizational capacity of your inner circle by including people from various backgrounds and opinions. Diversity in your advisors is the key to a successful leadership because it leads to a more informed and balanced decision-making.
Your inner circle should not be composed of only people ready to carry out your commands. Rather, it should be composed of people ready to disagree with you and challenge your preconceptions. Ultimately, the diversity of your inner circle will define your leadership legacy.
Jason Lim is a research fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute, researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at email@example.com.