[Viewpoint] Soft leadership in tough times

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[Viewpoint] Soft leadership in tough times

It is generally believed that the quality of a nation’s politics is correlated with the quality of its citizens. So if politics goes wrong, citizens are often blamed. This reasoning prevailed in Korean society until recently. However, no one blames the public for the latest political debacle. As we gather for end-of-year parties, we hold the ruling party, and especially the president, primarily accountable.

The character of political leaders changes with the times. However, their personality and behavior have tremendous influence over the politics of the countries they lead. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Bush and Obama had various characteristics, but we judge the quality of American politics based on their personalities and behavior. Korean leaders are no different.

Interestingly, all of Korea’s president were combative activists. Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak all share the aggressiveness. Combative leadership has been the yardstick used to measure the quality of Korean politics. That’s why no one finds it strange that politics resembles a battlefield in our country. Having a combative spirit has been considered to be a prerequisite for presidential hopefuls.

People say that no same event is repeated in history. However, politicians eyeing a run for the Blue House prove otherwise. As if they want to remind the public of our former presidents, they have a hard time controlling their combative desires.

Nevertheless, the public will no longer allow such a leadership style. According to an R&R-Donga Ilbo survey on political and social awareness, citizens preferred “soft leadership that embraces the pain of the citizens” over combative leadership. About 67.2 percent favored soft leadership, more than twice of the number of respondents who wanted strong leadership. The trend can be interpreted as a rebuke of Lee Myung-bak’s unilateral leadership style.

We need to note one thing here. The rebuke of Lee Myung-bak’s leadership does not seem to be retaliatory. His overwhelming victory had been driven by a retaliation against the country’s so-called “leftist” leadership. However, the public won’t again allow such retaliation.

Instead, we can expect a “healing” power that transcends the vicious cycle of political retaliations. Therefore, anyone who deviates from the trend and engages in combative campaigning denouncing either the left or the right would struggle in next year’s election.

In the United States, President Eisenhower, who was known for his gentle charisma, is considered to be one of the most popular presidents. His election allowed the Republican Party to come into power after 20 years, and he enjoyed an approval rating of over 65 percent even after he left the White House. His popularity illustrates the problems with Korean presidents, who barely have approval ratings above 30 percent.

Eisenhower’s trademark was his “calming influence.” Having led American forces through World War II and the Korean War, he believed that calm politics was the most important element the United States needed. He worked very hard to establish the climate for calm and soft administration. When he was criticized for not displaying strong leadership, he said that it was nonsense to believe that the president had all the wise ideas.

The keywords in Eisenhower’s leadership were persuasion, reconciliation, education and patience. While he considered himself a conservative, he behaved like a very liberal conservative.

And he did not forget to give advice to politicians running for office: “Get out there. Don’t look so serious. Smile. When the people are waving at you, wave your arms and move your lips.”

The death of Kim Jong-il has caused tension not only between the South and the North but also within the South. There are concerned voices that next year’s election will become a fierce battlefield. However, the possibility of the North Korean factor influencing the outcome is very small. The public favors soft leadership and hopes for a stable relationship with North Korea.

Of course, the business of politics cannot be separated from power struggles completely. Politicians may not be able to avoid a battle-like campaign entirely in order to seize power in the legislative and presidential elections. However, should the reality of high tensions be buried by warfare? Calming the restive majority is the most important task. It is also the message of Eisenhower’s leadership.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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