King Sejong set the pace for corporate leadership
During his reign, he stressed the values of being a great scholar, yet never fell into the trap of idealism. He held the contemporary Ming Dynasty in China in high respect, but fostered his own country’s power.
But there is an important aspect to King Sejong that many Korean historians had underestimated and are only now slowly starting to pay attention to ― his leadership. Many books on leadership use the Joseon monarch and scholar as a new model for corporate management.
In his book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond wrote the purpose of writing, whether in cuneiform or in hangul, began with the need for accurate accounting of everyday life.
When Sejong took over the throne, he demanded detailed audits of the kingdom’s revenue. In 1421, he issued a law requiring the use of a double-entry bookkeeping system to check on the accuracy of recorded material. Most corruption scandals ― such as the theft of income that year by officials who oversaw the royal belongings ― were uncovered due to this law.
Another important tool of Joseon state management during Sejong’s reign was statistics. The registration status under Sejong was similar to the current system, dividing the kingdom into the units of townships and counties to register each household member, as well as their property and possessions.
Experts suggest that Sejong was a keen judge of civic sentiment, spending much of his time overseeing food distribution and the people’s health and dealing with crime.
Kim Young-su, a professor at Kukmin University, says the royal record quotes Sejong as saying at the time of his accession, “I grew up in a palace, and I don’t know the suffering of the people.”
Seven years into his reign, when a severe drought caused a kingdom-wide famine, Sejong is said to have gone out to rice paddies to meet with farmers. He came back to the palace, having skipped his meal, and told his retinue that he couldn’t hide his tears during the visit. When he became weak from a lack of sleep due to the incident, he ordered his servants not to tell his family about his health.
This nurturing character was evident in other areas, such as his attitude toward prisoners.
The record reveals that Sejong told prison guards to look after prisoners and make sure that they did not suffer from malnutrition or other illnesses resulting from neglect. When a woman accused of killing someone by casting a spell on her victim was brought to the king, Sejong ordered his officials to investigate further, citing the “unreasonable basis for the charge.” Later, when he found out that officials had forced a confession from the woman, he sent his servants to release her.
“Sejong was a generous leader,” says Mr. Kim. “When a civilian who lost his land in a lawsuit blamed his misfortune on the king’s incompetence, a criminal act assaulting the royal dignity, Sejong brushed aside the case, saying there was no need to bother with the words of an ignorant citizen.”
Others point to Sejong’s profound reading habits as a source of his benevolence.
Jeong Yun-je, a researcher at the King Sejong Institute for Statecraft and Leadership, says Sejong ran his state with a sense of balance. When he was revising a tax law, he collected as much advice as he could, whether from his subjects living in the capital and rural areas or from government officials.
When it came to policy making, he preferred preventive measures. The fact he even took advice from working-class citizens show that his leadership was deeply humane.
“The essence of Sejong’s leadership was that he wasn’t just a strategic politician,” said Yu Mi-rim, another researcher at the King Sejong Institute. “He had confidence in his strategic vision, and he made his plans very clear to his courtiers. The fact he sent officials to China 13 times to ask for advice on new plans reveals his attention to detail and his decisiveness with regard to his political agenda.”
by Park Soo-mee