[Viewpoint] Lee should focus on the big picture

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[Viewpoint] Lee should focus on the big picture

Euh Yoon-dae, a former Korea University president who is currently heading the Presidential Council on National Branding, recently advised President Lee Myung-bak that he should cut down on work and spend more time thinking.

In an interview with a newspaper, Euh said, “President Lee’s weakness is working too much,” recommending that the president cut his workload by half. The Blue House seemed displeased about the advice, but the suggestion appears to be a most necessary if bitter tonic for the president.

The Blue House emphasized that outside of critical issues Lee delegated responsibility and authority for most of his policies to relevant ministers and heads of offices. Lee no longer shows up at his office early in the morning, and he even takes days off. The Blue House also said the president often spends time in contemplation.

But to the public eye, Lee still appears to be the president attending to every trivial detail of the government.

A few days ago, the head of the Korea Forest Service proposed that the nation’s Arbor Day should be advanced to March because the Korean Peninsula’s climates have generally warmed. Lee, however, put the brakes on the plan. The president said Arbor Day has been fixed at April 5 for a long time, and so there is no need to change the date.

Of course, changing the date of a national event is an important issue and it is natural for the president to be involved in the process. But Arbor Day is not a significant national holiday. It’s a day of planting trees.

He must need to be 10 places at once to meddle in all such minor matters.

In comparison to the worsening economic crisis and the North’s imminent missile launch, Arbor Day is trivial. Such an issue should be discussed at a meeting of the Cabinet hosted by the prime minister.

“The president loves to be briefed by working-level directors rather than ministers. He feels satisfied after asking the details from them and discussing the issues,” one minister said.

The minister said Lee is well aware of all the issues of governance and has extensive and broad knowledge, intending to praise the president.

According to the minister, Lee pointed out inaccurate figures in an economic report, making the officials sweat. In a time of the economic crisis, it is fortunate for Korea to have an economic president, but concerns linger that he is too obsessed with his experience and achievements as a CEO and overlooks the larger issues.

All presidents are human. They are not omniscient and omnipotent. The president alone cannot deal with all the complex issues of national governance.

If he meddles in the details, each tree may be pristine, but the entire forest will become a mess. The president should let other officials worry about the details, while he focuses on the big picture.

What we are left wondering about is the role of the prime minister. Prime Minister Han Seung-soo is a veteran official who is deeply trusted by the public. We wonder how President Lee will make the best use out of Han.

By delegating most responsibilities and duties to the prime minister, Lee can focus his energy on resolving crucial tasks and creating a vision for Korea’s future.

When journalists start to surround the prime minister and the prime minister begins to make more frequent appearances in the media, the president will be under a lesser burden and be able to concentrate more on the big picture, on steering the nation toward the future.

Euh’s advice may be short and simple, but it contained much deeper meaning. Euh, who was two years junior to Lee during their college years at Korea University’s business management school, is supporting the administration as an important presidential council head.

If Euh had delivered the same message in a harsher tones - like a politician who is well known for speaking a good message but in an insulting way - Euh would probably have simply told Lee to do better.

In order to fight the economic crisis, Korea needs dynamic leadership to consolidate the nation’s power and create a breakthrough. However, it seems that no such attempt is being made.

At this point we critically need Lee’s leadership of persuasion and conflict resolution, which brought about the success of the Cheonggye Stream project, but he does not appear to be using it.

The president is busily running around, but there are no solid results, making the public wonder whether he may have lost his direction.

Lee has not presented a specific agenda on how to overcome the crisis, or a clear vision of Korea’s future, and that is why the people are feeling insecure.

Many people who wish for Lee’s success as Korea’s president probably hold the same opinion as Euh.

Lee should keep in mind Euh’s advice and spend more time thinking about an overarching vision for our national future.


The writer is the chief of the editorial page of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Heo Nam-chin

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