[Viewpoint] Leadership in a time of crisis

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[Viewpoint] Leadership in a time of crisis

The Tohoku region of Japan was struck by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, which was followed by a devastating tsunami. Now, the world’s attention is focused on the Japanese government’s response to prevent the release of radiation and a nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

In order to deal with the extreme crisis, Tokyo is considering an operation that may cost the lives of the rescue workers. The entire country is in panic. Many citizens are suffering from shortages of electricity, water and food, and the roads are filled with people trying to leave the affected region. News footage was like the scenes from movies about the end of the world, but are actually happening in a neighboring country.

In the modern age, we have grown accustomed to analyzing and explaining events based on scientific methods. We have applied this scientific methodology not only to natural phenomena, but also human and social interactions. We call the ideal form of scientific exposition a “theory.” A good theory makes a predictive future possible.

However, the level of science today is not advanced enough to explain and predict catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. A complete explanation of the origin of life, earth and universe and the future is not within the realm of science. We can only make predictions based on statistical data from the past, but it is impossible to know what will happen in the future. Since science is not enough to provide a clear explanation, we are feeling increasingly insecure.

Because of the dominance of scientific thinking, we have forgotten something. Since long before the advent of modern science and technology, we have always conducted a fundamental reflection on society and the mankind. We examine ourselves and our own societies and communities. Reflection requires more profound and insightful observations and interpretations about the background, context and consequences of events than scientific analysis.

Of course, we need to make logical and scientific efforts to design buildings to resist the shock from earthquakes, construct strong dikes and use technology to prevent exposure to radioactivity. However, it is just as important to give consideration to emotional elements to help people overcome extreme crises. We need to care about the shifting sentiments of individuals and be aware of any impact on a social community in the aftermath of the shock, as well as the hopes and vision for the community and individual for the future.

Here, reflection is not simply limited to “repentance.” Instead, we need to more aggressively and progressively “confront” ourselves. While responding according to reasons to mend physical damage, we need to look with sympathetic eyes to face the self and the community. The so-called social safety network should be created based on an emotional consensus. The key to the theories of the risk society and reflexive modernization by sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens can be found here.

Reflexive capacity is a prerequisite for a leader in a risk society. A leader can have insights to solve real world problems through serious reflection. Moses displayed amazing self-reflection and insight to overcome the crisis of the Jewish people when caught between the Egyptian forces and the Red Sea.

What opened a way out of the crisis for the troubled Jews was not scientific knowledge but the power of emotional control, judgment and the vision of the leader. We remember U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the strong leadership he displayed in the aftermath of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. President John F. Kennedy also showed insight during the Cuban missile crisis. Captain Seok Hae-gyun also displayed great leadership and wisdom in order to save the crew when the ship was abducted by Somali pirates.

A leader is tested on his leadership in a time of crisis. In responding to overwhelming stress and time pressure, a leader has to distinguish what he should do, say and decide from what he shouldn’t. He has to be clear, decisive and prompt. If the leader is reluctant, the crisis will escalate rapidly. Then, it will be even harder to save the situation.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan is confronting a critical test. Leaders of many other countries and communities can learn a lesson from what is happening now in Japan. The destroyed bridges and the collapsed buildings can be reconstructed with time, but the wounds that this disaster has left in the heart are harder to heal.

*The writer is a professor of mass communication at Korea University.

By Ma Dong-hoon
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