[VIEWPOINT]A king’s lessons in teamwork

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[VIEWPOINT]A king’s lessons in teamwork

The concept of teamwork has been getting the spotlight in Korea lately. Three years ago, soccer coach Guus Hiddink and his team impressed the whole country. More recently, Professor Hwang Woo-suk and his team surprised the entire world with their stem cell research. And yet Korea’s politicians have been remarkably slow when it comes to working as a team. Not only is there a creaky working relationship among the political parties, the government and the Blue House, but the group leadership system of the opposition party does not seem to be operating successfully.
All three of these areas ― sports, science and politics ― call out for teamwork, not for going one’s own way. But they have arrived at completely different outcomes. What accounts for these differences?
From the reign of King Sejong, the golden age of Korean science, we can find many examples of excellent teamwork. The creation of the world’s first rain gauge, and the development of the era’s most advanced timepieces and metal printing presses, were the fruits of effective teamwork. Of course, King Sejong made it possible by promoting talented people regardless of their status, and by appointing officials with engineering backgrounds to key posts.
But promoting Jang Yeong-sil was not easy even for the king, because Mr. Jang had been a servant, owned by the government. When the king tried to appoint Mr. Jang to a fifth-level government position, Minister Heo Jo of the Board of Civil Office objected because he was a son of a gisaeng, a female entertainer at drinking parties. But Jo Mal-saeng supported the decision, saying that Mr. Jang was the person best suited for the position of managing the wealth of the royal court. Prime Minister Hwang Hui said, “Let’s follow the precedent of the promotion of former servant Kim In as a military officer for his bravery.” King Sejong’s answer was simple: “Do as Hwang Hui says.”
But Mr. Jang did not invent the various devices by himself. There was Lee Cheon, who, while leading the research team, explained the workshop’s operations to government officials and won the support of the royal court. An officer who came in through the military service examination, Mr. Lee was a metal technician and a thorough field researcher. Based on his combat experience, including the invasion of Japan’s Tsushima Islands, he developed assembly-based firearms with high mobility and firepower. He had also visited Ming China and obtained examples of advanced technology there.
In order to fulfill his duties, Mr. Lee sometimes made unreasonable demands of the team members. In the process of constructing the astronomical observatory called Ganeuidae, he demanded the participation of Kim Sun-ji, who had been mourning and living by the grave of his deceased mother according to tradition. While filial piety was important, he argued for appointing Mr. Kim as a government official. King Sejong concurred with Mr. Lee’s request, despite public opinion, and gave Mr. Kim a double promotion for his skill in calculating astronomical movements.
Of the roles that Mr. Lee played, the most notable was his leadership in fostering teamwork within his organization. This talent for leadership was especially displayed in the process of creating Gapinja, a highly sophisticated set of metal printing typefaces. As with the team’s other projects, Mr. Lee oversaw the overall operation while letting Jang Yeong-sil and Lee Sun-ji take charge of the project. The team members came up with good ideas, and by giving them responsibility for the job, the team attained the desired results.
Interestingly, Mr. Lee’s leadership style resembled that of King Sejong. Just as he had trusted Jang Yeong-sil even though he was of low status, King Sejong was confident in Mr. Lee’s talent and trusted him with an extremely serious task. Instead of clinging to theory, the team used flexibility when needed, and achieved the original purpose for which the theory had been designed.
In truth, King Sejong’s leadership was simple. In discussions of state affairs, he simply supported the point of view that he believed made the most sense. He had a unique way of bringing people together and presiding over discussion. Prime Minister Hwang Hui would listen to the debate between those responsible for a project and their opponents, and would summarize it for the king. Then the king would back the prime minister’s opinion. That was King Sejong’s secret to fostering teamwork.

* The writer is a professor of political science at the Academy of Korean Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Hyun-mo
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