[FORUM]Accepting the brutal truthBritish Prime Minister Winston Churchill never lost his vision even during the gloomy time when Adolf Hitler had a grip on most of Europe. The British leader was armed with a steady vision while looking straight at the grim reality at the same time. Mr. Churchill was concerned that bad news could turn into good news when it was delivered to him because of his charisma. So he established the Central Statistical Office, a completely independent agency outside of the official chain of command.
The foremost mission of the Central Statistical Office was to deliver the most solemn reality without any modification to Mr. Churchill. Throughout World War II, Mr. Churchill had full confidence in the Central Statistical Office and asked for nothing but the truth. Mr. Churchill had written that he did not need a dream in which he received an ovation and preferred reality to dreams.
Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale of the United States was held a prisoner of war at Hoa Lo, the notorious prison nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” for eight years during the Vietnam War. Mr. Stockdale had no idea when he would be released, but he still fought against the enemy’s attempts to exploit prisoners of war for propaganda purposes and helped as many fellow inmates as possible to survive. After he was freed, he became the first man to wear the fighter pilot badge with the Congressional Medal of Honor in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Admiral Stockdale reckoned that the forces that helped him overcome the dismal situation were the belief that he would succeed in the end and the discipline to look straight at the most brutal facts of reality. He said that the optimists who had only the belief but failed to face the reality could not endure life in prison. They said that they would be out by Christmas, and when Christmas came and went, they then hoped they would be out by Easter. When they were not released by Easter, they eventually died of a broken heart. You have to face the reality that you are not getting out by Christmas or Easter, but never lose the faith that you will be out someday in the end. That’s the mindset to survive. Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don’t,” called it the “Stockdale Paradox.”
A few days ago, President Roh Moo-hyun stressed at a meeting with business news editors of media outlets that they should not think the Korean economy is in crisis. He said that the struggle of small and mid-sized businesses, the agriculture industry and independent business owners is a structural crisis persisting from the past, and therefore it should not be considered a crisis of the economy as a whole.
Prior to the meeting, a presidential secretary for economic policy claimed on the Blue House Web site that the Korean economy was strengthening its foundations and had entered a recovery phase. He argued that for an economy the size of Korea’s, 4 percent growth was solid, and if Korea grew by 5 percent next year, it would be the fourth-best performance among the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He mentioned the Kospi’s record high as key evidence refuting the crisis theory.
But, in reality, many people are complaining that they are struggling more now than during the financial crisis of 1997. The political climate is so unstable that the head of the governing party had to emphasize that the president would not resign in the middle of his term. The ideological discords are displayed by the controversies over the illegal eavesdropping case and the statue of General Douglas MacArthur. Also, the government’s antagonism toward Samsung and Seoul National University makes society even murkier.
There are so many major bombs lying around all over society because uncertainty is something the economy loathes most. Therefore, companies are reluctant to invest, and consequently jobs are not increasing. As a result, the growth potential might weaken. Various domestic and international factors, such as the low birth rate, increasing elderly population, rising international oil prices and explosive growth of the Chinese economy, are not favorable to the Korean economy.
At this juncture, it is not desirable for the government to say that we are not going through a crisis. What assures and encourages the citizens is a vision for the future, not the sweet rhetoric of saying that the situation is not that bad. I cannot help having the impression that the government is turning away from the brutal reality.
The “participatory government” does not have a clear vision. Last year, the Asian Development Bank pointed out that the Korean government missed a key agenda item necessary for economic recovery. As the focus of the reform policy was set on reviewing the transparency of conglomerates, reforming the distribution structure and reinforcing the social security network, the government neglected economic efficiency and productivity and caused economic instability as a result.
The bank advised that the Korean economy could revive and investment would be boosted once the government regained the citizens’ confidence in its policies.
Clinging to a vision and conviction and turning away from brutal reality is the surest way to failure. No matter how grand and clear a vision and conviction might be, a leader cannot conquer a crisis if he does not make efforts to listen to the truth and accept the brutal reality.
Neglecting reality and presenting false hope that will soon vanish is an especially easy way to ruin an organization and destroy morale.
* The writer is a deputy head of the policy planning team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Se-jung