[VIEWPOINT]An age-old problem for leaders

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[VIEWPOINT]An age-old problem for leaders

Even wise King Sejong found choosing the right candidates for state offices to be a ruler’s most difficult task. There were plenty of talented people, as there always are, but it wasn’t easy for the king to find men he could trust. Some candidates who were competent and trustworthy were loyal to the collapsed Goryeo Dynasty. Others were purged for involvement in the so-called rebellion of the princes, or had political charges against them.
King Sejong decided to look to the thoughts of young scholars for a solution. He liked to use the kingdom’s impending problems as test questions on the civil service examination. Topics for some examinations included ways to reform the tax system, defense policy and the civil service examination itself.
In 1474, the essay topic for the exam was “how to select competent officeholders.” “There are times when the nation prospers, if there are men of ability; when a kingdom is in decline, there apparently is no one competent to reverse its fortunes. There is no king in the world who doesn’t want the best men, but the truly talented are always mixed in among those who are only pretending to be competent. How to distinguish one from the other?”
Gang Hui-maeng came up with a solution that won him first place in the examination. “No man on earth is perfect,” he wrote, “but anyone can display his given talents as long as he is appointed to the right position.” If the king focused on men’s faults, no one would be able to meet his standards, no matter how competent. Therefore, the most basic principle of making appointments is to assess a person by his merits, not his flaws. Then, Mr. Gang wrote, the king would be able to manage the greedy and the incorruptible alike.
To make wise appointments, the king should be able to categorize the candidates, distinguishing those who can be trusted with the future of the country from those who must be kept away from important jobs. Those who can be trusted, Mr. Gang wrote, are “the ones whose minds have a solid center and are not restricted by unnecessary formalities,” and “the ones who work harder than anyone but are prudent in taking credit.”
In contrast, he wrote, “those who indulge in lecherous affairs, are interested in accumulating fortunes and are not ashamed of their conduct” should be avoided. Those who were not ashamed to lose their dignity had no chance of betterment.
Mr. Gang also believed that talented officeholders could be developed. Except for outstanding individuals and those who were to be kept away from affairs of state entirely, all others were to be objects of education. This would include “well-informed, smart yet greedy men,” and “those who have administrative ability but like to expand projects unnecessarily.” The education of these candidates should focus on developing their intelligence and administrative ability. Their managers should appoint them to the right jobs, teach them to maximize their ability and be patient in waiting for them to perform to their full potential.
Since one has to wait for results, this can be a risky practice, but it is a hopeful one. In fact, King Sejong consistently pursued a policy of focusing on staffers’ merits. When officials criticized Hwang Hui and Kim Jong-seo on moral grounds, the king protected them and waited for them to accomplish things. He was sure that they were outstanding talents, and thought their achievements would overshadow their flaws.
The king had another concern. From the list of government officials, he could not tell what their specialties were; what’s more, those who were not on the list were excluded from appointments.
What King Sejong chose were tolerance and coordination. The king made use of the recommendations from Hwang Hui and other officials, candidates’ essays on the civil service exam and petitions from scholars on special subjects as sources for finding talented people. At the same time, he nurtured individual officials’ merits by assigning the right man to the right post.
The recent controversy over the appointment of a deputy prime minister and minister of education not only shows how hard it is to pick the right people, but demonstrates the importance of a sophisticated and open personnel management system. In Korea, we may have been consuming men of talent without educating and developing them.

* The writer is a research fellow at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Hyun-mo
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